The big story currently driving the political system in Israel to distraction is the completely unexpected and unprecedented post-election pact between Bayit Yehudi, under MK Naftali Bennett, and Yesh Atid, under MK Yair Lapid. The heads of the two parties have agreed between them that neither will enter the coalition without the other. The chances that Labor (15 seats), which is extremely leftist on economic matters and suspiciously coy about diplomatic and security matters, will join Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, are extremely slim.
Given the election results, therefore, Netanyahu (with 31 seats) cannot establish a coalition if both Yesh Atid (19 seats) and Bayit Yehudi (12 seats) refuse to join it.
The pact between the two parties is one of three things, or a combination thereof. It could be a brilliant, cynical tactical move by Bennett to force Netanyahu to give him powerful portfolios in his new government. It could be a revolutionary ideological-political pact signaling a seismic change in Israeli society and government, which will drive non-Zionist forces to the sidelines. It could also be an act of irresponsible and amateurish brinkmanship that might bring down Likud and the entire nationalist camp from its leadership position.
It cannot be all three.
Crossing the lines
Bayit Yehudi is the current incarnation of the National Religious Party, or Mafdal, which has been a part of Israeli politics in one form or another since the state's establishment, and which in turn represented the movement known in the early decades of modern Zionism as the Mizrachi movement.
Yesh Atid is a new party. It belongs to the centrist variety of parties, which Israel has seen in numerous elections over the years. Centrist parties in Israel usually stand for very little other then the fact that they are neither too leftist nor too nationalistic, and they tend to disappear from the scene after a few years in the Knesset.
A favorite centrist issue, however, is the objection to what is perceived by many Zionist Israelis as an unfair hareidi privilege: the exemption of men from compulsory military service. The main plank in Yesh Atid's platform is a plan to force most hareidi men to enlist into the military or national service, and to limit the exemptions for Torah students to 400 annually.
The fact that the hareidi world is largely perceived as un-Zionist and even anti-Zionist feeds a general anti-hareidi sentiment which bolsters support for the anti-exemption initiative. This sentiment is particularly strong in secular and leftist circles. The further left one goes, the more likely one is to see hareidim demonized, alongside right wing "settlers."
Over the years, Israel's religious parties, including the hareidi ones, have come to be seen as part of the "right wing bloc." They are perceived, rightly or not, as "natural allies" of Likud. Although hareidi parties, and Mafdal as well, have been accused of betraying nationalist causes on different occasions, it is undeniable that by definition, the religious parties tend to be less leftist and more traditionalist than non-religious parties.
By siding forcefully with Lapid on hareidi enlistment, Bennett is thus adopting an issue that is generally perceived as one that unites the Israeli center and left wing, while splitting the religious-nationalist camp.
Bennett's insistence that he will not enter the coalition without Lapid, coupled with Lapid's insistence on implementation of his hareidi enlistment plan, is therefore highly controversial. If Bennett were not the charismatic figure that he is, fresh on the political scene, he would undoubtedly face fierce opposition from within his party to the move. However – his popularity is keeping that from happening at this point.
Hareidi leaders' mistakes
Another factor working in his favor is that besides angering secular Israelis, hareidi leaders have succeeded in alienating many religious Zionist leaders as well. Pre-election statements slamming Bayit Yehudi as "the home of gentiles" and accusing it of "uprooting the Torah" deeply insulted the religious Zionist sector, and the apologies delivered thus far have been partial in nature. Religious Zionists are also upset over what they see as their deliberate distancing, over the years, from seats of influence in the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbinical Courts, Religions Ministry and other official positions, by the hareidi parties.
Likud warns that the Bennett-Lapid pact is forcing it into taking in Lapid as a primary partner, which will be able to topple the coalition at any point it desires. Lapid has declared that he sees himself replacing Netanyahu as prime minister, and recent polls suggest that this is a realistic possibility. Lapid's list of MKs includes some radical left wingers, and should new elections be held and Lapid elected as prime minister, it is highly likely that he would embrace leftist parties like Meretz and Labor as his partners. Reckless and disastrous acts of surrender like the 2005 Disengagement would probably follow.
However, Bennett thinks Netanyahu is being disingenuous when he accuses him of helping the Left. He says that it is Netanyahu who wants to establish a leftist government with Yesh Atid, Tzipi Livni, and the hareidim, who usually do not object too strenuously to leftist policies as long as they receive the portfolios they desire. He thinks Netanyahu takes him for granted and will take him into his coalition only to throw him out when he finds it convenient to do so – just as Ariel Sharon threw out the nationalist Ichud Leumi from his coalition when he began implementing the Disengagement.
A Zionist coalition
Bennett appears to believe that by giving Lapid what he wants, regarding hareidi enlistment, he is actually helping to forge a Zionist coalition that redraws Israeli politics. Hareidi parties would be sidelined, at least for a while, and the government would be established on solid Zionist foundations. Hareidi men would have to start pulling their weight in modern Israel, which depends on its young men – and to a lesser degree, on its young women – to defend it on the field of battle in the daily struggle for existence. Israeli Jewishness itself would be redefined, as the chasm between some parts of the Torah world and the rest of Israeli society would begin to be bridged. Disturbing sights like those of defenseless hareidi men being badgered by Arabs, 1930s Germany style, would perhaps become less likely: men who undergo basic training in the military tend to react more forcefully and effectively – some would say honorably – in situations like these. The IDF would, on the other hand, have to redefine some of its norms in order to accommodate a larger number of hareidi men.
Land surrenders are not on the table anyway, as Bennett sees it, and Lapid, while a prime representative of the smooth-talking and pampered chattering class, is not an ideological leftist. It is true that he wrote an infamous column in which he said that the Disengagement was meant primarily to teach the settlers a lesson, and that another column disgustingly attacked a religious soldier who refused to shake hands with the IDF Chief of Staff because of the Disengagement. But Lapid has also made some nationalist-pleasing declarations about the pointlessness of negotiating with the Palestinian Authority. He has refused to form a bloc with "the Zoabis," and he chose to deliver his maiden political speech at Ariel in Samaria. Generally speaking, he does not seem to possess enough of a political or personal spine to be considered an ideological player in any case.
A masculine ethos
Bennett and Lapid have found a common denominator in the masculine ethos, as well: Lapid is an amateur boxer and a has been a writer for Blazer, a glossy men's magazine. In Tel Aviv's "metrosexual" culture, he is a figure that still stands for the more old-fashioned kind of masculinity, even if his military service as a reporter for the IDF's Bamachaneh magazine was less than heroic. Bennett is an officer in the IDF's most vaunted elite commando unit. The two neophyte parliamentarians appear to have formed excellent chemistry and trust in a very short time. They have been talking about giving each other "a man's word" not to betray one another. This kind of talk is anathema to many leftists, especially ones who speak the "war-is-machoism" and "peace-is-feminist" lingo like Channel 2's Rina Matzliach. She has already commented bitterly, on air, that it appears that for Bennett and Lapid "a man's word is not a woman's word."
The pact with Yesh Atid could also simply be a cynical political move by Bennett to twist Netanyahu's arm into giving him a powerful position in the coalition. In return, he would agree to enter the coalition without Lapid – thus breaking his "man's word."
The deadline for Netanyahu to announce his coalition is fast approaching, and the results of the negotiations will probably not be known until the last minute, true to form for Israeli politics, which are not for the faint of heart.