Shira Sorko-Ram is one of the founders of Maoz Israel, a non-profit group in Israel that helps new immigrants, among many other things (check out their About page). Shira produces a monthly bulletin called the Maoz Israel Report. I’m sharing this month’s lead story as it details what Benjamin Netanyahu accomplished in May as well as what potential goals and challenges lay ahead. (Visit MaozIsrael.org to read all of the June 2012 report).
The Tests and Trials of Benjamin Netanyahu
By Shira Sorko-Ram
It was Sunday evening. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a surprise announcement to dissolve the Knesset and call for early elections. He had set a date: September 4, 2012.
As a popular head of state and leader of the Likud party, he would have been able to serve out his four-year term scheduled to end in October 2013. With a coalition of 66 Knesset members out of 120, he had a respectable majority at least for Israel. But looking into the future, he decided he needed a larger majority for what lies ahead.
His aim was to create the strongest coalition possible to withstand the expected onslaught of pressure were President Barack Obama to be re-elected. Netanyahu is altogether aware that Obama has little patience for Israel or its prime minister. And with the absence of Obama needing Jewish or Evangelical Christian approval during his second term, Israel could be in for a bruising.
Late the following night, Knesset members were busy closing down the 18th Knesset in preparation for the new elections. Then at 2:30 in the morning, Netanyahu announced a stunning change of plans that surprised the entire nation.
He revealed that his erstwhile nemesis, Shaul Mofaz, chairman of the largest opposition party (28 seats to Netanyahu’s 27 seats) was joining his government and thereby giving Netanyahu a majority of 94 seats out of the 120!
Mofaz, former military chief of staff, and current head of the Kadima party (founded by Ariel Sharon) had fiercely attacked Netanyahu and his Likud party many times, calling him every name thinkable and unthinkable. But now Mofaz stood alongside him and said to the media, “Yes, Mr. Prime Minister, I called you a liar. But we have agreed to let bygones be bygones, and we will work together!”
Now the two closest ministers surrounding Netanyahu would be Defense Minister Ehud Barak (also a former chief of staff) and Mofaz. All three men have a long history as former leaders in Israel’s elite Special Forces unit and took part in some of Israel’s most daring and successful operations such as the famous Entebbe raid.
In one fell swoop the prime minister gained everything he could have dreamed of in short, a massive wide coalition with parties on the right and central-left. The Israeli population is generally in favor of the new unity government and even the leftist media is praising Netanyahu as a masterful political strategist. But the people are not totally convinced that when it comes time to bite the bullet, he will make the enormous reforms needed to better the country.
Will Prime Minister Netanyahu have the courage, wisdom and fortitude to fulfill the expectations of the Israeli population? The challenges are massive.
From top left: 4 United Arab List-Ta’al (Left/Arab/Islamism); 4 Hadash (Left/Arab/Communism/Socialism); 3 Balad (Left/Arab nationalism); 3 New Movement-Meretz (Left/Socialist/Peace Activism); 8 Labor (Left/Social democracy/Labor Zionism); 28 Kadima (Centrist/Liberalism/Zionism); 5 Independence (Centrist/Zionist); 27 Likud (Center/Right/Conservatism/Capitalism/Zionism); 15 Yisrael Beitenu (Right/Non-Orthodox); 3 The Jewish Home (Right/Modern Orthodox Judaism/Zionism); 11 Shas (Right/Ultra-Orthodox); 5 United Torah Judaism (Right/Ultra-Orthodox); 5 National Union (Right/Orthodox/Zionism)
FIRST CHALLENGE: DRAFT ULTRA-ORTHODOX INTO ARMY
Israelis have had it. Period. Israel’s young men have to serve three years in the army and women two. Then there is reserve duty that can be up to a month out of every year until age 54. Of Jewish Israeli males who are not ultra-Orthodox, authorities say that about 5% are draft dodgers, although others say that the percentage could be as high as 12%.
However, of Israel’s Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) 85% of the men do not serve in the army, as the government allows them an exemption to study full time in rabbinical schools called yeshivas or kollels.
In 1948, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, felt it reasonable to allow 400 yeshiva students to be exempt from the army in order to study Torah and Talmud. However that number has now grown to 50,000 non-working full-time yeshiva students, who expect never to work or serve in the army and to forever receive their livelihood straight from the pockets of hardworking taxpayers.
Today’s 700,000 Israeli Haredim are only about 8% of the overall population, but they double their population every 12 to 20 years. They believe their rabbinical studies are the true reason Israel continues to exist and they fully expect their political representatives in the Knesset to continue to keep them on the dole and out of the army.
Ultra-Orthodox protesting against an Israel’s Supreme Court ruling which ran counter to their traditions.
Not only is the public crying out against this unjust and unfair load on the middle class taxpayer, but Israel’s Supreme Court finally handed down a ruling that the government of Israel has until August 31, 2012 to change the so-called Tal law which presently exempts the Haredim from military service.
Now with Netanyahu’s massive coalition of 94 Knesset members, the ultra-Orthodox with their mere 16 seats can no longer blackmail the prime minister by threatening to pull out of the coalition and bring down the government which they were well able to do until the Kadima party joined the coalition.
The army has publicly declared that it no longer has enough soldiers to fill its ranks. And the Israeli mainstream citizens who populate the army today are simply not going to take it any longer. As Israeli soldiers say, “We are not going to be suckers any longer. The ultra-Orthodox men must serve in the army just like the rest of us.”
The question still stands: will Netanyahu have the courage to face down an enraged population of 700,000 Haredim?
All governments know, once a segment of the population receive entitlements and benefits, it is almost impossible to withdraw those benefits.
SECOND CHALLENGE: ADDRESS HIGH COST OF LIVING
Like in most every democratic nation of the world, the youth of Israel have taken to the streets demanding distribution of wealth. This summer, left-wing parties plan to set up tent cities as they did last summer and lead the protests for more social equality.
The situation in Israel doesn’t exactly parallel that of the US; there are specific challenges unique to Israel. Israel started out as a socialist country partly because its early leaders came from communist countries and partly because no capitalist in his right mind would have invested in the nascent state of Israel with surrounding enemy countries having as their top priority the destruction of the Jewish state.
Even in 1967 when I arrived in Israel, salaries were low for everybody. I remember a well-known government official who was a friend of mine who made $400 a month. Israel was a thirdworld country and I heard many tales of new immigrants who tried to open businesses, but were thwarted at every turn by the all-powerful Histadrut which had become not only the national union but also the national owner of most large businesses.
However, as Israel grew in stability and strength, the nation began to move towards a freer economy, with the government selling off many of its companies to private enterprise though not without much howling from the Histadrut and the left.
Still, the facts are that by weaning itself off socialist-influenced policies that once brought 400% inflation and 60% income-tax brackets, Israel’s economy is now growing despite the international financial slowdown. Debt is manageable, the currency is strong; Israel’s high-tech sector is admired worldwide.
Of course all of us know that no matter how much man tries to perfect systems, fallen man sullies the best of plans through his self-centered, me-first nature. And so in Israel, there is an extraordinary small number of extremely wealthy families who control most of the banks and many of the large companies. With power (whether in government or wealth) comes corruption and Israel has its share.
The area of greatest grievance is the extremely high cost of living, compared to the low take-home pay (taxes are very high both for the worker and the employer). The demonstrators who will flood the streets this summer see the main culprit as this abnormal concentration of finances in the upper echelon of the business community.
When people talk these days about Israel’s economy, they use words like booming, resilient, even “miracle.” Nevertheless, when Israel began to reduce social benefits and entitlements, poverty grew in some sections of the public. And it is this issue with which Netanyahu will be grappling the rest of the year.
Israelis protesting the rising housing prices and growing numbers of poor and homeless pack the streets of Tel Aviv.
THIRD CHALLENGE: STRIP ENTITLEMENTS TO NON-WORKING HAREDIM
But there is an added reason for the woes of a shrinking middle class and the rise of Israelis living below the poverty line. The weak link can be found in none other than Israel’s you guessed it Haredi population, and also the Arab population which numbers 1,500,000 alongside 6,000,000 Jews.
According to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, Haredim and Arabs will make up 78% of Israel’s population by the year 2040! And the ongoing trend among Haredim is to increase the number of non-employed men. In 1979, for example, just 20.9% of Haredi men did not work, compared to 65% today.
The Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, a world-renown economist, noted that the economic lot of Arabs is actually improving (and is much better than that of Arabs in surrounding nations) while Haredim were getting steadily worse. Six out of every 10 Haredim today live below the poverty line, while among the Arab community it is about 50%, he said. And Haredim receive many more handouts than the Arabs in the hundreds of millions of shekels a year.
In summary, of these 700,000 ultra-Orthodox citizens, today 65% of the men don’t work (compared to 15% of the non-Orthodox population) and vow that they will never work because of their lifetime full-time rabbinical studies. Even if they wanted to work, economists say Haredim are so limited in their education that they fall below third-world children, which would make it difficult for this community to supply engineers, physicists and doctors.
Fischer continued, “The growing number of Haredim choosing religious studies over gainful employment is unsustainable, and arrangements have to be made to force them into work.”
“We support a lifestyle of non-working that is pretty unparalleled in the Western world,” said Ben-David, a Tel Aviv University professor. “On the one hand, we have this state-of-the-art part of the economy. Then there is the rest of the country that is like a huge drag.”
Fischer warned that change would come, but wondered if it would materialize through a chaotic social conflict or through consensus. This is a cry for a very wise and courageous prime minister.
Now that Netanyahu actually has the opportunity with his massive coalition, will he stand up to the ultra-Orthodox and help his country by expunging corruption in both government and business?
FOURTH CHALLENGE: FIXING A BROKEN ELECTORAL SYSTEM
Prime Minister Netanyahu is presiding over Israel’s 32nd government. This means that Israel’s prime ministers last on the average only 25 months. The problem starts with the abysmally low 2% qualifying threshold for a party to obtain a seat (one of the world’s lowest). The result is that at every election a potpourri of tiny parties gain a few seats in the Knesset and from those the leader usually of the largest party must cobble together a wobbly coalition, often of strongly opposing ideologies.
In the present Knesset, 13 parties are represented. The inherent instability of these coalitions allows small parties to initiate no-confidence motions and bring down governments almost at will. All Israel wants this system changed. That is, all but the Knesset members from small parties who have the ability to dissolve a government if they feel threatened. Mr. Netanyahu, like past prime ministers, has long been blocked from restructuring these critical defects which resonate deeply with the Israeli public and go to the heart of what kind of democracy the young state will become. Will Prime Minister Netanyahu use this historic opportunity to reform this debilitating and defective system for his long-suffering Israeli people?
FIFTH CHALLENGE: SHOULD ISRAEL ATTACK IRAN?
An Israeli plane KC-135 Stratotanker
Boeing 707 refuels an F-16C preparing for
any eventuality in the future.
What should Israel do about Iran?
At times it seems that this is the one issue that preoccupies Netanyahu more than any other.
But many commentators insist Israel simply does not have the military hardware to successfully destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.
According to a Fox News interview, Israel can’t do it.
- Israel’s bunker busters only penetrate to 20-50 feet. Iran’s facilities are 200 feet underground.
- Compare Israel’s small fleet of 87 F-15s, to the US’ 522. Or Israel’s F-16s: 307 to the US’ 1,280.
- Israel has no strategic bombers no B51’s, no B52’s which carry 25,000 to 30,000 lb. bombs. Her largest bombs weigh 2,000 lbs.
- The distance from Israel to Iran is 950 to 1400 miles. But Israel has only eight or nine refuelers and she would need every last plane in her possession to carry out the attack. Israel has been asking the US for help to bomb Iran for twelve years. But so far the US has refused to supply the modern armament needed to do the job. Yet, as the nuclear threat grows, Israel will become more desperate. Will Netanyahu decide to attack anyhow?
SIXTH CHALENGE: JUST MAKE PEACE WITH THE PALESTINIANS!
Palestinians protesting on their
yearly anniversary of “Nakba”,
Arabic for “Catastrophe”
marking the day that
Israel was born in 1948
These above challenges are the ones that preoccupy the Israeli public. But lest we forget, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promptly and publicly reminded Mr. Netanyahu, that because he now has a huge majority in the Knesset, it is time to make eternal peace with the Palestinians.
Never mind that the Palestinian leaders will not negotiate with Israel unless Israel agrees to a whole string of demands before talks, offering nothing in return. Never mind that every boy and girl who is born to Palestinians is brainwashed from the earliest age to grow up to fight “to the last drop of blood” the evil Israelis. Never mind that Hamas and Fatah publicly declare they will continue to fight Israel until she is destroyed. Never mind all that. Hillary demands peace. Not from the Palestinians, but from Israel. And indeed, Israel is deeply concerned as to what will happen if President Barack Obama is re-elected and no longer has to worry about pleasing American Jews or Evangelical Christians. What kind of pressure will he use to force Israel to make “peace” with the Palestinians?
There are countless other issues: Should Israel allow more houses to be built in its settlements or not; should Israel give the West Bank to the Arabs or not. Should the Haredim continue to control the religious life of the whole nation? One example of many: The fact that there is no public transportation on the Sabbath is a terrible hardship on all Israelis who don’t own cars.
And when all these challenges are successfully overcome (!) there is always the world-wide mushrooming plague of anti-Semitism in every Islamic nation, throughout Europe and in universities around the world. Nor can Israel ignore for a moment the constant bias and abuse in real threats and sanctimonious accusations to delegitimize the state of Israel coming from the UN.
If ever a man needed prayer, it is Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Reprinted with permission of the author.