Netanyahu's Ticking Time Bomb

The clock is running out for Benjamin Netanyahu. Five weeks after his pyrrhic election victory, he is still trying to piece together a new Israeli government. The one force he has working for him is that the leaders of every other party in parliament also know how few hours are left before the buzzer sounds.

Time may also be running out to prevent a third Intifada in the West Bank. But no one can say what form a new Palestinian uprising will take, or whether it will break out next year or tomorrow. The lack of a known deadline is the most charitable explanation available for the way Israeli coalition talks have been conducted, with the major parties sparring about the secondary issue of military conscription, as if neither economics nor foreign policy existed. At times like this, Israelis can envy the elegant simplicity of Italian politics.

Formally, the coalition countdown began a week-and-a-half after the election, when President Shimon Peres assigned Netanyahu to form the next government. The choice was unavoidable. The right-wing alliance of Netanyahu's Likud and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party lost a quarter of its support, but still has 31 seats in the 120-member parliament—more than any other party. The large grouping of rightist and religious parties, while battered and divided, retains a 61-seat majority.

The prime minister has 28 days to present a government, and his time runs out this Saturday evening. Netanyahu, now heading a caretaker government, can request a 14-day extension. If he can't patch together a new government by March 16, game over. Peres may then ask someone else to try or—more likely—declare that the task is impossible. The consequence would be new elections within three months.

To avoid this, Netanyahu has three equally unlikely options. He can convince two ultra-Orthodox parties to join a coalition with ex-TV host Yair Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party. Lapid insists on ending the draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox men who pursue lifetime religious study—which in practice is nearly all of them. The ultra-Orthodox parties see conscription as an anti-religious edict forcing pious young men into a secular, libertine world where women in uniform can touch men's hands while teaching them how to hold a rifle. Alternatively, Netanyahu can convince the Labor Party to join his coalition—but Labor correctly thinks there is an "abyss" between its social-democratic platform and Netanyahu's free-market fundamentalism. Netanyahu's intention to meet an economic downturn with budget cuts—emulating the approach that has proved disastrous in southern Europe—makes an alliance with Labor even less likely.

The third option is to bridge a gap on the Palestinian issue between ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni's party (generically named The Movement) and the religious nationalist Jewish Home party, led by novice politician Naftali Bennett. Livni's party is the only one that has agreed to join Netanyahu's coalition. She campaigned entirely on the urgent need for a two-state solution, and her price for entering the coalition was sole authority to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority. As for Bennett, he declared in his maiden Knesset speech that "there's no room in our God-given patch of land for another state." For now, Jewish Home refuses to join the coalition unless Livni is leashed. Livni is not someone who easily agrees to leashing.

Jewish Home also demands a change in conscription law. In contrast to the ultra-Orthodox, its nationalist constituency has sanctified military service. That issue, and a common interest in weakening Netanyahu's bargaining position, has led to an alliance with Lapid's Yesh Atid. So far, the Likud's intermittent coalition talks with the two parties have focused on conflicting proposals for drafting more ultra-Orthodox men. Lapid's plan would cut exemptions for religious study to a few hundred, and let the army decide which 18-year-olds to take and which to send to alternate civilian service. Netanyahu's proposal rejects a ceiling on exemptions and gives ultra-Orthodox men until age 23 to decide between the army, civilian service, or continuing to study Talmud. Livni's conscription expert has his own proposal, which would expand separate units, with no women present, for the ultra-Orthodox. No one talks about the potential damage to women's equality in the army—or about drafting ultra-Orthodox women.

The demand for "equality burden"—in time served and danger faced—was a major reason for the sudden success of Lapid's new party. Since the draft exemption historically encouraged ultra-Orthodox men to continue religious studies rather than working, the various conscription plans are also aimed at channeling them into the workforce.

Yet the emotion-fraught debate over the draft diverts attention from the more practical, pressing crisis: the burden on the Israeli economy of supporting the quickly growing ultra-Orthodox community. The reality is that few ultra-Orthodox men could find work even if they weren't trying to keep their exemption. In the state-funded schools for ultra-Orthodox boys, class time is devoted overwhelmingly to religious studies. English, math, science—preparation for employment in a knowledge economy—are all glaringly missing, especially at the high-school level. Neither Lapid nor Bennett has challenged this educational exemption. For that matter, the Jewish Home's negotiators only started discussing economic policy this week—even though the new government, if it's formed, will have just 45 days to approve a national budget for this year.

By leaving the issues of territory and peace for last, both Lapid and Bennett act as if the draft issue is purely domestic—as if the army's recruitment needs have no connection with whether Israel continues to occupy the West Bank, whether troops must continue to guard settlements, or whether the Palestinian demonstrations of recent days are the first skirmishes in a new uprising. The coalition talks are taking placing in alternate universe of a serene Middle East.

The real West Bank is not serene. Last week demonstrations in support of four hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails turned into clashes with Israeli troops. The protests grew after a 30-year-old Palestinian, Arafat Jaradat, died of still-undetermined causes after being arrested and questioned. The masked gunmen of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, long absent from the streets, appeared at Jaradat's funeral, firing a salute, and issued a statement declaring, "we promise the Zionist occupation that we will respond to this crime." The Brigades identify as the "armed wing of Fatah," the movement led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. It's unclear whether Abbas is letting the militants make a show of anger or has lost control. Jaradat's death and the hunger strikers are only sparks. The West Bank is flammable because Abbas's strategy of ending the occupation through diplomacy has gone nowhere since Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009. The current protests may fade. The frustration won't vanish, nor will the pressing need for a new peace effort.

Meanwhile, Israeli coalition talks meander on. The odds are that a coalition will be formed, based on ambiguous compromises designed to save face and postpone decisions. No politician knows how voters will respond if called back to the polls in June, and none really wants to take the risk. But the moment a new government is sworn in, the clock will start clicking toward its collapse. "One more victory like this," Pyrrhus said 2,300 years ago, "and we are utterly undone." He could have been describing Netanyahu's victory in the last election, or the condition in which it left the Israeli polity. 

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