Israel-watchers are no longer waiting with bated breath regarding the outcome of ongoing coalition negotiations. It seems inevitable at this point that, barring any last minute snags, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu will be the the one to put together a coalition–made up nearly entirely of nationalist and ultra-orthodox parties. Persistent rumors notwithstanding, it’s unlikely that Zionist Union Chair Buji Herzog will swoop in to save the day and agree, conveniently, to a National Unity government–one in which he’d have to settle for junior party status.
Left-leaning journalists and activists have already begun mourning what they believe to be the impending demise of Israeli democracy ever since the final elections results rolled in. Without a center or center-left element to temper the right-leaning inclinations (and in some cases, far-right ones), they fear this incoming government will run roughshod over minorities, the media, the Supreme Court, and any other symbol of democracy that it can get its hands on. Never mind the fact that the right has been trying and failing to do the same thing for the last six years, with lackluster results. This time will be different–because it’s always different.
If I sound snide, it’s because we’ve been here before, when Reuven Rivlin was appointed President. A staunch one-stater, Rivlin’s appointment was seen by many on the left (including admittedly, myself) as a mainstreaming of the the far-right’s worldview. Fast forward a number of years and we witness just how wrong, and how pleasantly surprised we all turned out to be: Rivlin has shown himself to be one of the most outspoken opponents of racism in Israeli society, and has lambasted, on numerous occasions the right’s many attempts to undermine the country’s democratic foundations.
Those dismissive of the fact that Rivlin, as President, has no political power, are forgetting the likely arrival into the new government of former Likudnik and future Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. Like many rising stars within the party, Kahlon was pushed out by Netanyahu’s relentless grip on power, only to form a new center-right party of his own. That Kahlon, along with Bibi, are likely the two most left-leaning elements in this new coalition is troubling, but should not negate the significance of this fact.
Kahlon, is no leftist, of course, but a member of what might be called the “old Likud”–the vestiges of the party who, while skeptical of Palestinian intentions (sometimes called the “soft right”) are fierce in protecting the democratic institutions of the Supreme Court, freedom of speech, and frown down upon the encroachment of religion into public life. And indeed, even before the elections, and well before Kahlon consolidated his power, he was already making statements about the willingness to trade land for peace (followed almost directly by the claim that there was “no partner”). Given that its likely that many of his constituents were far more interested in talk about economic and housing issues, the peace process was a bullet that Kahlon could have easily dodged.
He’d also made it clear his opposition to the current nature of Likud, labeling it a party that’s been hijacked by extremist elements. Just days ago, coalition negotiations revealed that Kahlon refused, as a condition of joining the government, to accept new legislation that would weaken the Supreme Court.
It was no secret that Kahlon and Bibi were not exactly the best of friends after the former’s exile from his political home; the latter has a knack for making enemies, even within the confines of his own party. While Kahlon may have initially been relieved that the polls showed Herzog leading, Bibi’s clear victory has left him with little choice but to accept the alternative. This victory has also proven to be a double edged-sword; while Bibi has been able to dictate to his junior partners, he’s dependent on nearly every one to keep together his coalition.
This is where Kahlon comes in. The prime minister knows that, despite his fantasies of forming a rigid, right-leaning government free of any constraints, he will not succeed without the recruitment of Kahlon’s Kulanu party into its ranks. With Kahlon’s official inclusion into the new coalition comes certain stipulations that have been hinted out in the past few weeks: his ability to veto certain pieces of legislation, in particular ones pertaining to the weakening of the Supreme Court and the Jewish Nation-State bill that has been floating around for months. Naturally, the matter does not end there; certain sources in the Likud claim that, despite Kahlon’s opposition to such laws, he may be forced into an uncomfortable situation with other coalition members who may in turn veto his economic proposals.
It’s well known that Kahlon’s return to politics had little to to do with ameliorating Israel’s international standing by working towards the final end goal of peace agreement (despite the inclusion of former ambassador Michael Oren, who has talked at length about such issues) or with the maintenance and improvement of civil rights within the country itself. But faced with an onslaught of anti-democratic measures such that are planned, it may not be a matter that he’ll be able to easily ignore. Even at the expense of his own economic reforms–on which he was elected–Kahlon may have to stand his ground against the far-right, or find some sort of happy medium that will please all sides. Oren’s inclusion in these discussions may have a positive effect on Kahlon in this regard. Here’s hoping that if compromise is the cards, we won’t be seeing any major damage done to the country’s democratic foundations.