Political life after the budget

November 11, 2021 by Ron Weiser
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For the first time in three years, the State of Israel has a budget.

Ron Weiser

Prime Minister Bennett declared the budget’s passing as “the most important moment since the government was formed.”

The budget promises sweeping changes to many areas of life including: in the cost of living; the breaking down of some monopolies; infrastructure building, particularly in the areas of transportation and hospitals; increasing the retirement age for women; kosher certification; a rationalisation of the standards and approvals mechanism in many areas of importing; housing costs; agricultural subsidies; raising the socioeconomic level of minorities; taxes on plastics; and so on.

The passing of the budget saves Israel from an immediate election.

It also means that by coalition agreement, Lapid will become the transitional prime minister whenever the next election is called.

What the coalition demonstrated was that despite its wide diversity, agreement on complex matters is possible. Indeed, the designing and carriage of the budget was a heroic effort.

The budget passing also presents Netanyahu with his biggest political defeat since going into opposition. He had consistently promised his party and the public, that he would pull a rabbit out of the hat and defeat the budget and hence force new elections. Former close confidant and partner, now bitter opponent, Minister Lieberman said “In my opinion, his magic is finished.”

Netanyahu is definitely damaged politically – whether fatally or not remains to be seen.

He continues to remain Likud leader because of the disconnect between two realities.

Likud Knesset members who are at the coal face of parliament understand very well that it is Netanyahu who now keeps them out of government. On the other hand, the Likud voter base will not currently tolerate any thought of a handover to a new leader.

The prevailing opinion in Israel is that the Biden administration may have been playing it softly softly with the coalition government until the passing of the budget, so as not to endanger it. But that now, US pressure may mount.

A potential flashpoint is around the US wanting to reopen its consulate in Jerusalem that, until closed by then President Trump, was for decades effectively the de facto US embassy to the Palestinians.

So, it is not surprising that at their first joint post-budget media outing Prime Minster Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid immediately after justifiably trumpeting their budget success, turned to this topic.

Bennett said: “there is no place for an American consulate that serves the Palestinians in Jerusalem…….. We are expressing our position consistently, quietly and without drama, and I hope it is understood. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel alone.”

Demonstrating full agreement and a united front, Lapid then followed, saying: “If the Americans want to open a consulate in Ramallah, we have no problem with that. But sovereignty in Jerusalem belongs to one country, Israel.”

The third person on the podium for the press conference was Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Lieberman it should be said again, has been uncharacteristically quiet in public for the past few months, almost silent in fact, other than when it came to criticising Netanyahu.

Despite the focus on the inclusion of Mansour Abbas’ Israeli Arab party Ra’am in the government as a point of internal friction, there are also other serious divisions within the coalition.

These differences are ironically, mostly between the other 7 largely Jewish Israeli parties and in the main centred on what to do about the Palestinians and the settlements.

There is wide-ranging, mutually opposing and very strongly held views within these 7 coalition parties on these matters and disputes may increase in the foreseeable future.

Mansour Abbas, however, had all his coalition agreement conditions met, including the recognition of three previously unauthorised Bedouin towns in the Negev.

The three townships are Rakhma, Hashm al-Zena, and Abda, with some 4,000 Bedouins living in these villages.

Whilst on the surface this appears to some to be a controversial move, it may not be. After all, these people need to be able to live somewhere inside Israel – so demographics are not central to this issue.

Even Regavim, a pro-Jewish settler group, found some positives in this decision. Its director, Meir Deutsch was quoted as saying: “This plan is both an opportunity, and a risk. On the one hand, this plan may lead to real change in the Negev, the restoration of state lands to the government’s hands and the beginning of the process of resettlement of the Bedouin squatters.”

In regards to Israeli Arab infrastructure and fighting inter Arab crime, a record US$10 billion was budgeted over the next five years.

Whilst matters around the coalition’s survival may be important, of greater long-term significance to Israel, is just how Israeli Arabs will judge what Abbas has achieved.

Will this bring them in closer to the fabric of the state of Israel, or not?

Will real long-term improvements in their daily lives and a greater effort to equalise their socioeconomic situation, overcome ideological baggage?

Abbas’ Ra’am, having broken away from the other Israeli Arab parties, sits precariously close to the election threshold.

Will Israeli Arabs repay him for the gains no other Israeli Arab party has ever achieved, by voting in increased numbers for Ra’am – or will they reject him and leave him teetering on the edge of political oblivion?

The Jerusalem Post said that the dentist turned politician, Mansour Abbas, “is amongst the most refreshing figures on the Israeli political scene”

Having first been courted by Netanyahu, the price he demanded for joining Bennett and Lapid was focussed on practical rather than ideological matters. Netanyahu too was very willing to give the same concessions, it must be noted.

It is also worthwhile remembering that Abbas heads an Islamist party whose roots are the Moslem Brotherhood – ergo, sharing the same spiritual home as Hamas.

Depending on which side of the equation one sits – Abbas is either the devil in disguise or a model for moving from radicalism to coexistence.

On Monday he met with Jordan’s King Abdullah but despite repeated requests from the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas over months, has been “unable to find the time” to meet with him to date.

Said Mansour Abbas: “If I meet with Mahmoud Abbas, it’s a controversy, and if I don’t meet with him, it’s a controversy. Let’s let time do its thing.”

Many similarities can be drawn between the Arab and Haredi sectors: lower socio-economic levels; larger families; and more fundamentalist elements when it comes to religion. Just to name a few.

However, currently they sit in opposite political camps – and some would assume – diametrically opposed ideological camps. Is that really so?

In a move not seen before, Mansour Abbas surprised everyone by promising Haredi leader Moshe Gafni MK approximately US$30 million from Abbas’ own budgetary allocations. That is, US$30 million that was earmarked for the Arab sector, is now to go, at the request of the Arab leadership, to assist the Haredi community.

A Haredi community desperately struggling from the opposition, for a greater share of the budgetary pie.

Altruism by Abbas, or shrewd political move looking down the track to when they may find themselves wanting/having to sit together in government?

Whichever, he is certainly clever and well understands the art of politics.

Overall, if this budget ends up being properly and fully implemented, it will show us the future direction of the relationship between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens – for better or for worse.

How Israeli Arabs internally assess it and the struggles they will have in weighing up its benefits, as opposed to those who will accuse Abbas of selling out, will be of great importance to Israeli society’s long-term internal cohesion and security.

A budget may not necessarily usually be all that exciting, but this one is. And it has multiple ramifications.

Ron Weiser is the Honorary Life Member ZFA Executive and Honorary Life President, ZC of NSW

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