Prague is so beautiful this time of year that words can't begin to describe its beauty. Mere moments before the city is flooded with tourists, the distant sun slowly begins to disperse winter's frozen chill and its ancient buildings — painted with an artist's precision in a rainbow of delicate colors — appear as though they were taken from a magnificent masterpiece by Pierre-Auguste Renoir or Claude Monet. The sky is blue and nearly cloudless. The dominant color is green: a deep strong shade of green that looks like it was sprayed on the lawns and on the treetops, thick and vivacious.
Last weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a quick visit to the city, accompanied by his wife. Despite the familiar security constraints, the two insisted on touring the city, which the prime minister called "the most beautiful city in Europe." After being moved to tears at Prague's famous Altneuschul (the old new synagogue) together with the cabinet ministers who tagged along, the couple returned to the hotel only to sneak back out at 1 a.m. for a stroll in the center of the old city. Perhaps "snuck out" is not the right term to describe what the Netanyahus did, as they were followed by a convoy of bulletproof vehicles and police cars with flashing lights and flanked by reinforced security as they leisurely crossed the Charles Bridge.
Even if he had wanted to, Netanyahu could not have disguised the sense of serenity and contentment that filled him during his trip to the Czech capital. But he didn't even try — two weeks prior he had established one of the broadest and most stable coalitions Israel had ever seen; the Czech leaders had welcomed him with immense warmth and cordiality; and if that wasn't enough, upon disembarking from his plane he was handed a fresh copy of the latest Time magazine with his picture, and a regal headline, gracing the cover.
For one day Netanyahu put aside the coalition problems that awaited him at home, the Tal Law controversy, the budget and the disputed neighborhood of Ulpana.
A solution within two months
As early as last Sunday, Netanyahu decided to address the first hurdle facing his mammoth coalition — finding an alternative to the Tal Law. (The Tal Law was legislated to encourage the ultra-Orthodox to join the workforce, but in practice it effectively exempted them from mandatory military service. Earlier this year the High Court of Justice ruled that the law was unconstitutional and ordered the legislature to revoke the law and formulate an alternative, one that would see all of Israel's citizens share the burden of service equally). The team assembled to come up with an alternative, which includes MKs, professionals, public figures and respected academic figures, is now complete and it even has a name: the Kashab committee (the Hebrew acronym for advancement of equality in service). The day after the roster was finalized, the committee convened for the first time at the Knesset.
MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima), who chairs the committee, is taking his obligation extremely seriously. The committee will reconvene for two consecutive days of discussions next week, with each lasting eight hours. A week after that, the speed will accelerate and the committee will convene three times per week. The High Court of Justice deadline (the Tal Law must be replaced by Aug. 1) gives the committee less than two months to solve a problem that has been ongoing for the last 64 years. The legislation process has to begin in mid-June if it is to be completed by the deadline, and that is why there is so much urgency.
The ultra-Orthodox parties boycotted the committee (they refused to participate in the committee's discussions), but behind the scenes they are meddling in it incessantly. The most powerful rabbis and Hasidic leaders have already requested meetings with Plesner. All the ultra-Orthodox MKs, without exception, already met with him this week.
One of the committee's most intriguing ideas is the integration of the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas (Jewish religious seminaries), or at least some of them, in a program similar to the Hesder program (a program that combines yeshiva studies with military service already in place in the religious Zionist sector). The program would include a reduced one-year to 18-month term of mandatory service, either military or civilian service within the community, in tandem with yeshiva studies.
But regardless of all the ideas that will likely be raised in the coming weeks, the issue always was, and will always remain, political. Netanyahu really wants an alternative to the Tal Law that will keep his coalition intact. The coalition will surely survive the withdrawal of this or that faction, but the prime minister is already thinking about his next term. His alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties is important to him. His alliance with Yisrael Beitenu (which is adamant about the need for every citizen to serve) is also important to him.
And his alliance with Kadima? At this point, Kadima is irrelevant.
In one possible scenario, the ultra-Orthodox parties would quit the coalition the moment the Tal Law committee submits its recommendations. If that happens, it would be good for the committee — that way the opposition groups within the public wouldn't be able to argue that the committee had formulated a watered-down version of the original Tal Law to keep the ultra-Orthodox happy. On the flip side, if the ultra-Orthodox parties stay in the coalition, the committee would have a hard time convincing the public that the new law is truly revolutionary.
In the event that the ultra-Orthodox parties do stay, two other factions may quit. The first is Kadima, which presented the recruitment of the ultra-Orthodox as its main reason for joining the coalition. But on the other hand, it is not very likely that a party that is free-falling in the polls (and could very well find itself below the electoral threshold by the time the committee submits its conclusions) would quit the coalition and submit to immediate elections, essentially bringing the party's untimely demise on itself.
For Yisrael Beitenu head and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, things are a bit more complex. Lieberman could still decide that quitting the coalition would improve his political standing. Perhaps as the chairman of the opposition he could garner more support than as a minister in the cabinet. Lieberman's close consultant Arthur Finkelstein has undoubtedly pored over polls and studies on all the possible scenarios. Ultimately, it will not be the Tal Law committee that determines Lieberman's next move, it will be Arthur Finkelstein.
The electoral reform trap
In a political system motivated by ambition rather than content, the Plesner committee could be rendered irrelevant. The committee's discussions, meaningful and broad as they may be, won't necessarily dictate the political deals that will eventually be made behind the scenes between Netanyahu, Lieberman, Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz and the ultra-Orthodox parties.
According to the coalition agreement that saw Kadima enter Netanyahu's government, the next big order of business for the coalition will have to be electoral reform. In regard to this issue, like the Tal Law, a committee headed by a Kadima representative will spearhead the efforts.
Various organizations, from within the administration and from without, have been dealing with the topic in recent years. They claim that the current system's instability needs to be addressed with a series of significant reforms: local elections (rather than national); the formulation of a constitution; appointment of professionals in specific fields to serve as ministers in that area; raising the electoral threshold (to discourage the multiplicity of small parties); and assigning the task of assembling the coalition only to the chairman of the largest party.
Superficially, these reforms appear to be good, and even necessary, especially since they are being demanded by entirely apolitical organizations who have studied the topic. But only superficially. Under the surface, senior Likud officials are worried that the move toward electoral reform is nothing more than a leftist plot to topple the right-leaning government and improve the chances of the Left to establish a left-leaning coalition.
The suggestion that the chairman of the largest party would be the only one permitted to assemble the coalition, they say, was meant to prevent the assembly of a coalition by means of a bloc majority, which in recent years has consistently been held by the Right. (Netanyahu in fact became prime minister when the centrist Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni, who won more votes than he did, failed to assemble a center-left coalition, while Netanyahu, with the right-wing bloc majority, was successful). If the law stipulated that only the largest party could assemble the coalition, Livni would have been prime minister today.
The regional system of election also favors the Left. According to opponents of electoral reform, Mapai (the left-wing party that dominated Israeli politics until it merged with Ahdut HaAvoda and Rafi to form the Labor party in 1968) initially divided the country into local voting authorities. Their division, they say, was designed to preserve the party's advantage over the Likud and the Right. Religious communities and communities associated with the Right were annexed as minorities in districts affiliated with the Left. To this day, the opponents of reform say, while the Right has been in power for years, most of the local authorities are headed by Labor and Kadima members.
Raising the electoral threshold would also be more beneficial to the Left than it would be to the Right. There are two parties on the Right that teeter on the cusp, just barely meeting the threshold: The New National Religious Party and National Union. If the threshold is raised, one or both of these parties could be left out of the government.
Even the formulation of a constitution would be better for the Left, they say. A constitution would assert the court's legal right to intervene in legislative matters. Even today, in the absence of a constitution, our High Court of Justice rules certain laws "unconstitutional." And everyone knows which political camp prefers a strong, involved High Court.
But it is not just all that, the worried Likud officials say. If you take a look at all the non-governmental bodies that deal with electoral reform, you will see that they are all affiliated with the Left to some degree: The Israel Democracy Institute (headed by Dr. Arye Carmon), the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (headed by Professor Uriel Reichman), Israel's Hope (headed by former Mossad chief Meir Dagan), President Shimon Peres and many others. None of them, aside from Dagan, is suspected of ever voting Likud.
But there is a coalition agreement with Kadima in place, and agreements must be honored. The electoral reform committee has not yet been appointed, but the conclusions are already there: Raise the electoral threshold by 0.5 percent (only if the New National Religious Party and the National Union agree to merge); raise the majority required to topple the government by vote of no confidence from 61 MKs to 65 MKs; and that, more or less, is where the list ends.
Everyone is putting out feelers
The Likud convention, which launched with much fanfare three weeks ago is still underway. Even though the general elections that initially prompted the launch have long been called off, Netanyahu is very much interested in keeping this configuration going because it allows him to pass changes in the Likud bylaws with a regular majority. On the agenda this time: not reserving seats, not moving the national list, but rather the option of merging different factions into a single list.
The initial objective of this move was to facilitate the merging of Yisrael Beitenu with Likud, in the event that several left-wing parties decided to merge into a super-party. The New National Religious Party was also an option to merge with Likud.
Now that the general elections have been called off, Netanyahu's associates have learned of several serious fishing expeditions that had been launched within the left-wing bloc. Labor, Kadima, Yair Lapid and Meretz were considering bringing the entire bloc together under a single leadership to counter Likud, seeing as neither Lapid nor Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich could pose any real threat to Netanyahu. As things stood, the mighty Likud was facing splintered medium-sized parties on the Left.
Facing a hopeless situation, the Left even suggested President Shimon Peres as the leader of such a unified party in internal discussions. Peres' associates have categorically denied any knowledge of such a suggestion. And still, though it sounds completely delusional, Peres' name was mentioned by some very serious individuals, despite his age, and despite everything.
But such mergers could also have other advantages: For example, a merger between Likud and Kadima. As things stand now, Kadima members can do nothing but kiss the feet of Lior Horev, the man who concocted the deal that spared them from total extinction. If the elections had been held in three months' time as planned, Kadima would have apparently lost all its seats. It wouldn't have won even four or three seats, but zero. Horev and Mofaz have hooked Kadima up to life support for another year and a half. If the polls erase Kadima from the political map, Netanyahu will be able to purchase it for a going-out-of-business sale price ahead of the next election, and get 28 additional funding units and more invaluable campaign airtime on television and the radio.
But there are two sides to every story. There is also Kadima's role. Despite the lifeline that they have been given, Kadima members looked bitter and depressed this week, more than ever before. It is not the fact that they have now joined the coalition that is bringing them down. It is not even the minimal number of ministerial appointments that they enjoy as coalition members. It is the polls; it the hopelessness — the feeling that this time it is truly over.
Laying the groundwork
Ironically, those Kadima members who supported Livni (who was booted from her party in a humiliating defeat) now have a glimmer of hope. In recent weeks, Livni has been touring the country, going from house to house, from north to south, visiting the few activists that remain loyal to her, who in turn welcome her with love and gather their friends for lectures and small conferences to hear her speak. In other words, moments after being ousted from her party, Livni is laying the groundwork for a comeback. If Kadima should split, it will be Livni who stands firmly behind the move.
Livni, it seems, is counting on the Israeli public's short memory. Only two weeks ago she was demonstrating in Tel Aviv with a group of anarchists against her own former party, and now she wants to return to center stage. To be the Great White Hope again, if not for the public, then at least for Robert Tiviaev and Orit Zuaretz, who will quit Kadima and join her.