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Diverse Israeli cabinet produces unheard-of alliances

Members of the coalition are voting in favor of bills proposed by their partners, instead of following their own ideologies and political worldviews.

Over 2,500 medical residents announced their resignation Oct. 7, following the failure of talks with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz to shorten the length of their shifts. The residents have been protesting for several days over their working conditions, arguing they can no longer provide quality health care.

A day earlier, Economy Minister Orna Barbivai said she would not extend the current authorization that allows residents in hospitals in the periphery areas to work for 26 consecutive hours, and that this model of shorter shiftswould be extended to the entire Israeli health system within five years. Evidently, her announcement did not satisfy the residents, who went ahead with the decision to resign. But on Oct. 11, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said, “There is no real problem. Everybody knows that we are about to pass a budget. This is nothing more than a performative protest. We’ve seen it all before.”

Ostensibly, what happened can be regarded as yet another fight in the age-old battle between ministries and state employees demanding better conditions. What makes this case interesting is the way that the three ministers involved presented a unified front, given that they come from three different parties with three very different worldviews.

Liberman is head of the rightwing Yisrael Beiteinu party, Horowitz heads leftwing Meretz, and Barbivai is a member of the centrist Yesh Atid party. The fact that they all agreed on the issue of residents is further evidence of the unprecedented ideological diversity of the Bennett-Lapid government.

When it was established in June, the cabinet was nicknamed the “Anyone-but-Netanyahu government.” The desire to be rid of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was evidently a strong enough motive for parties with very different worldviews to come together. Four months later, ministers are overcoming ideological divides, at least on some points. They know that after four elections in less than two years, Israeli citizens want a modicum of political stability and a government that will put differences aside and work for them.

Indeed, following the voting patterns of coalition members, one can see that on more than one occasion, coalition integrity superseded any ideological consideration.

So, for instance, on Oct. 6, the Arab members of the coalition voted against a law proposed by Likud Knesset Member Yariv Levin to make Arabic language studies compulsory in the Jewish sector. Similarly, in July we saw coalition Knesset members from Muslim Ra’am and leftwing Meretz voting together with the government to extend the Citizenship Law of rightwing Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked — even though the law ran counter to their principles. Then, just one week later, they voted against a proposal by the Arab Joint List opposition party to create a parliamentary inquiry into police failures to combat Arab organized crime.

Despite the current government’s success in removing Netanyahu from power, not everyone on the left is happy. Dr. Revital Amiran, a political scientist and publicist, tweeted this week that, “As a woman on the left, I have a very hard time with this government’s economic policies.”

“Cooperation between parties from different sides of the political spectrum could be a welcome development, especially in a society as divided as Israel," she told Al-Monitor. "On the other hand, cooperation that makes the agendas and worldviews that lie at the base of the parties’ identities redundant creates a serious problem, since it drains those parties of their ideological authenticity. … Voters searching for ideology will end up supporting the most extreme iterations of their views, or they will lose faith in politics entirely.”

Other examples demonstrate the same patterns. Yamina coalition lawmaker Abir Kara voted Oct. 6 against an opposition bill to provide unemployment payments to independent contractors. Kara is a social activist. He entered the Knesset as representative of the independent contractors. By siding with the coalition against a proposal he may actually support, Kara prevented the law from passing. It failed by one vote only – his vote.

This phenomenon is especially conspicuous in the very tense relations between the two Arab parties in the Knesset – Ra’am of the coalition and the Joint List in the opposition. Ra’am head Mansour Abbas on Oct. 13 supported a law proposed by coalition colleague Sharren Haskel of the New Hope party, to legalize medical marijuana. Joint List legislator Ahmad Tibi, addressing Abbas in Arabic from the Knesset dais, said “I’m jealous of Sharren Haskel, who got you to support her law, even though you refused to support my own law to connect homes to the electrical grid even if they don’t have a Form 4.”

“The current coalition was formed on the basis of a common desire among all its members to remove Netanyahu," Ksenia Svetlova, a former member of Knesset and a research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University, told Al-Monitor. "This may be an impossible coalition, with Ayelet Shaked advocating for further construction in West Bank settlements and the Meretz party ministers going to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, but paradoxically, it remains alive thanks to Benjamin Netanyahu. These opposing forces, which involve economic, no less than diplomatic issues, have become more visible in the last few weeks. Apparently, these tensions will reach their climax as the budget is passed.”

Davidi Hermelin, a member of the Likud Central Committee, offers Al-Monitor a different perspective. “Efforts [by the opposition] to embarrass the so-called right within the coalition are futile, and will not bring about the breakup of the coalition." The right wing within the coalition, he said, "already long ago sold their values to a government with an excess of far-left supporters."  To break the coalition, he said, Likud should "play on the tensions between the left inside the coalition and the left outside of it. Levin’s law about teaching Arabic in schools was a step in the right direction, since it humiliated Ra’am in front of its voter base. Similarly, Likud should support surrogacy for gay couples. The coalition will then be boxed: either it opposes the law and hurt its reputation on the left, or it can support the law and have Ra’am quit the coalition in protest.”

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