When your uncle from America would come for a visit, at least in 1980s terms, it was always a very exciting affair — the large suitcases; the exquisite English; and most importantly, the shiny gifts. The gifts always comprised the newest toys, luxury perfumes and brand name apparel that we could only dream about here in Israel.
Today, when almost every American product is imported to Israel within weeks, there is no doubt that some of that old magic has disappeared. We still show the uncle from America our best hospitality, let him sleep on the foldout bed in the children's room and even drive him to the airport, but to be honest, we do it mainly to get similar treatment when we visit him in America.
The same thing applies, on a national level, to a visit by the American president. The entire country goes into preparation mode, the roads are painted red and blue, the trumpets reverberate throughout the airport and the cabinet ministers look like shy children asking for an autograph from the latest teen idol.
But U.S. President Barack Obama will not be bringing any shiny gifts during his upcoming visit to Israel. All he is expected to bring is that same old, worn out merchandise in the form of another call for peace, moves to jumpstart the stalled peace process, confidence-building gestures, etc. Nevertheless, who would dare stay home and miss the royal welcome ceremony that happens only once every eight years, on average?
Obama's visit could help push into the coalition all those parties who pose the resumption of the peace process as a precondition for joining. They will all argue that there is no better guarantee that peace talks are about to recommence than the fact that Obama came to Israel.
It is still very hard to predict the exact make-up of the next coalition, but several key anchors can already be checked off. First are the ultra-Orthodox parties. The moment Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid announced that he plans to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu within six months, the decision was made to bring the ultra-Orthodox parties into the coalition. If the choice was between Lapid and the haredim (ultra-Orthodox), and Netanyahu cannot trust Lapid — who, thanks to the size of his party, would be a senior coalition partner — not to topple the coalition and try to take his place, as he has explicitly declared, then the choice is clear. The haredim, have already proved their loyalty. Haredim in the coalition means stability.
Lapid's remarks ended up costing him, because his plan — to have a rapid first accomplishment to show off by pushing the haredim out of the coalition — ended up having the exact opposite result by hermetically sealing the ultra-Orthdodox parties' place in the coalition. Not only that, but among many, including Lapid's most avid supporters, his remark was seen as arrogant and reckless.
With all due respect to Lapid's election success and the large number of Knesset seats that he managed to win, it is very rare for people to come out looking good after making remarks like that, especially since the remark was made mere days after Netanyahu was tasked with assembling the next coalition, and before Lapid had even served one single day as an MK. Lapid has never presided over any kind of operation, small or large, and has never contributed anything to Israel's public sector. Even his military service is not at all impressive (he served as a reporter for the Israel Defense Forces' official magazine, "Bamahane").
Likud-Beytenu officials are convinced that success has simply gone to Lapid's head; that his vision has been clouded by the number of seats he won in the election. The same thing happened to many a politician before him. The problem is that what is done cannot be undone. Even if he grows a tail and starts sticking his tongue out like a poodle, the trust that Netanyahu could have had in him as a true partner is now completely gone.
Unlike his trust in Lapid, Netanyahu can't possibly lose his trust in Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, because he never had any to begin with. Ever since Naftali Bennett left Netanyahu's service in a huff in 2008 (he served as the head of Netanyahu's headquarters when the latter was the leader of the opposition) the two haven't exchanged nearly as much as a word. This week, during the ceremonial induction of the new Knesset, there was a handshake between the two men, but if there had been a glass of water between them at that moment, it would have turned to ice on the spot.
Many members of Likud-Beytenu have been pressuring Netanyahu in recent days to meet with Bennett and to re-establish their relationship — to build trust. At this stage, Netanyahu has so far refused. Last week he sent Yisrael Beytenu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman to meet with Bennett. The general assessment is that Netanyahu and Bennett will work together again at one point or another — if not during the coalition negotiations then later on at the cabinet table.
Bennett's camp is talking about serious conflicts within the Habayit Hayehudi leadership in recent days. They are saying that the election results were utterly disappointing. Bennett, they say, saw himself as a future candidate for the position of prime minister. The elections last month were supposed to prove that he could break through the sectorial national-religious barrier and attract voters from all walks of life to support his party.
But the 12 seats that he won, they say, basically prove the opposite. Bennett did manage to convince more religious people, and more varied sectors within the national-religious population, to support him at the expense of Likud-Beytenu and other parties, but he was unable to breach the barrier and bring in non-religious voters. The fact is, they argue, that the National Religious Party (the predecessor of Habayit Hayehudi) won 11 seats a decade ago. All Bennett really did, they say, is restore the party to the position it held back then, no more.
And thus, an alliance between Habayit Hayehudi and Lapid was born. It seems that this relationship aims first and foremost to divert attention from Bennett's disappointing numbers while simultaneously allowing Habayit Hayehudi to absorb some of Lapid's big success. But the truth is that there is no Bennett-Lapid bloc. They have a handful of shared interests, and enormous differences on other issues.
But for now, this seeming partnership is beginning to irritate quite a few people in both camps. The national-religious rabbis and National Religious Party veterans are troubled by this ostensible alliance with a party whose platform is seen as anti-haredi. In their eyes, Lapid's party seeks to destroy the world of Torah study and yeshivas (religious schools). Meanwhile, Lapid's supporters, and indeed some of his fellow party members, are starting to complain about the partnership with the most right-wing party in the Knesset, which includes extremists like Orit Struck and Uri Ariel among its ranks.
Anyone following the reports of the relationship between these two parties has seen that they are coming from only one source — Bennett's camp. Lapid's associates haven't said a single word on the matter. The reason is that Lapid and his people didn't know that such a relationship even existed. The appearance of such a relationship helped their position in the coalition negotiations so they kept quiet about it, but when the glue that Bennett was spreading around began to harden, Yesh Atid began to feel a little suffocated.
Using subtle messages, Yesh Atid officials tried to slightly loosen the ties that bound them together with Habayit Hayehudi. We are not Bennett's Siamese twins, they said.
Incidentally, one of the individuals mentioned as being involved in bringing Lapid and Bennett together was Shalom Shlomo, a former political adviser to Netanyahu and currently an adviser to Bennett (though he still remains loyal to Netanyhau) after having worked with Bennett in Netanyahu's office.
Yachimovich's brutal choice
The prime minister seemed very calm during the Knesset swearing-in ceremony earlier this week. Between political meetings he happened to hear that comedian Lior Shlein had arrived at the Knesset building to accompany his girlfriend Merav Michaeli, who had been sworn in as a Labor MK that day. Shlein is known in the entertainment industry as having right-wing views — an extremely rare occurrence in this business. Netanyahu summoned the couple to his office, and as soon as they entered the room he said: "You are the proof that a unity government is possible."
That same day, Netanyahu also met with the chairwoman of Michaeli's party, Shelly Yachimovich. There is a possibility, though very slim, that Labor will join Netanyahu's coalition, despite all the declarations and vows to the contrary both before and after the election. Unlike young newbies like Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir and their ilk, who would probably prefer sitting in the opposition anyway, there are quite a few senior Labor members who are openly saying that the coalition option is definitely on the table.
Even Eitan Cabel, who refused to be a minister in Netanyahu's last government and wasn't quiet about it, sounds more reconciled today. We should examine our options rather than rejecting the coalition outright. It is also safe to assume that the rest of the Labor veterans, like Isaac (Buji) Herzog, Avishay Braverman, Binyamin (Fouad) Ben-Eliezer and others, wouldn't mind joining the coalition under certain circumstances.
In fact, Yachimovich is now faced with a brutal choice: If she decides to join the coalition she will be mercilessly judged by the public and the media as a mega-flip-flopper, but if she decides to go to the opposition she will be eaten alive by her fellow party members. These veterans will try to strip her of the party leadership over her failure in the election, and Labor history proves that threats from within the party are usually far deadlier than anything external. Either way, the choice will ultimately be hers to make.
Another person pushing Labor to join the coalition, besides those MKs who dream of returning to the cabinet table, is the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, Ofer Eini. Many people within Labor say that he is actively fanning the flames around the issue, but since the relationship between him and Yachimovich has been strained as of late, he probably can't directly convince her at this stage. Maybe he'll have better luck down the line, when the coalition option becomes more distant as other parties join.
But until Yachimovich makes up her mind, there is another party that will almost certainly be in the coalition — Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah. The same Livni who refused to join Netanyahu's coalition when her party had 28 Knesset seats, will now bring her mere six seats and much more modest demands to the negotiations table. The Hatnuah chairwoman wants to spearhead the diplomatic process with the Palestinians. Netanyahu is willing to give that to her, as long as she understands that it will be under his supervision and on his behalf. In principle, Livni finds this entirely acceptable.
As for Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, the situation is slightly different. He is acting as though he has yet to process just how tiny his party has become. His representatives have presented Netanyahu with a list of demands and conditions that would be befitting of the 28-seat Kadima, not the one that won only two seats in the last election. It could be that Mofaz is in denial, or alternately, there is a very high likelihood that it is former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who is pulling Kadima's strings behind the scenes these days. It is in large part thanks to Olmert that Mofaz's Kadima managed to meet the minimum threshold of votes to even enter the Knesset. It may be that it is the pressure Olmert has been exerting on Mofaz that is the source of the negotiations difficulties of the passing week.
Appointments on the shelf
Likud-Beytenu's negotiations team is completely devoid of politicians. It comprises attorneys David Shimron and Yoav Mani and accountant Moshe Leon. But, as it turns out, it is impossible to conduct a negotiation without involvement by the political echelon, so two politicians entered the fray this week. The first was Vice Prime Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon. In recent days, Ya'alon held many meetings with various officials in the ultra-Orthodox parties as well as Habayit Hayehudi. The objective was to present them with his proposal for drafting the haredim into the military, which will apparently serve as the basis for the law that the next government will try to pass in efforts to ensure more equality in sharing the burden.
Ya'alon's plan seems likely because Lapid's haredi enlistment proposal could prove problematic on several levels. First off, it probably won't pass the High Court of Justice test. Legal experts who read Lapid's proposal point to the first stage — a five-year deferment by granting a blanket exemption for all haredim — as being even less equitable than that Tal Law (the previous haredi draft law which expired last August), which the court overturned. Secondly, Lapid's plan would tear the public in two. The second phase of his plan calls for an exemption from service for only 400 yeshiva students. This would mean coerced enlistment of thousands of haredim each year, or, in other words, thousands of defectors or, in the best case scenario, thousands of haredi plant waterers that will wash over IDF bases. The army isn't equipped to absorb them — not now, and probably not in five years either.
The second politician to enter the negotiations was Zeev Elkin, but he came from a different angle. Elkin was appointed chairman of the Knesset steering committee this week. In the coming days, all the representatives of the various parties will approach him and present their demands for membership in the different Knesset committees and other parliamentary positions. The contact between Elkin and all the factions in essence opens up another channel of coalition negotiations.
And another thing about parliamentary appointments: In the last coalition, there were eight Likud members who held ministerial portfolios. Naturally, they all want to continue serving as ministers. There can be a maximum number of nine Likud ministers in the next cabinet. There are many vying for that one extra slot: Tzipi Hotovely, Gila Gamliel, Zeev Elkin, Ofir Akunis, Haim Katz and Danny Danon comprise a partial list of possible candidates.
The possibility of extra-parliamentary appointments, like positions in embassies or government-owned companies, has been ruled out. Such appointments take time to execute. The cabinet will be sworn in no later than a month from now, and what minister would agree to leave the cabinet and wait for a job that may or may not happen?