A Fragmented Knesset

By the looks of it, the next coalition is going to be far from stable, and Olmert’s talk about a government that will rule for the next four and a half years seems to be no more than wishful thinking.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on April 11, 2006.)


Over most of its history, the Knesset was dominated either by one large party, Labor or Likud, or by two large political rivals, Labor and Likud. This time, three mid-sized political blocs can be expected to set the tone in the Knesset – Kadima, Labor, and the ultra-Orthodox bloc (Shas and UTJ). As a result, the coalition government to be formed by Ehud Olmert most likely will not be very stable: Kadima has a rather narrow base of only 29 Knesset members, while the party itself, an unproven combination of disparate elements, may encounter difficulties in functioning coherently. An early indication of that is Olmert preferred his advertising agents over party members to conduct the coalition negotiations. It will be surprising if this coalition can hold together for its full tenure.

An indication of the lack of stability characterizing the upcoming coalition is the seeming inability to assign key ministerial portfolios to the most suitable members of the coalition government. This is no minor matter. It is true that you do not have to be a general to be a good defense minister, and you do not have to be an economist to be a good finance minister, and you do not have to be a professor to be a good education minister. But that does not necessarily imply that it really does not matter who gets these jobs.

In Defense, Finance, and Education, the suitability of the candidate may be of cardinal importance to the fate of the country. There is no dearth of examples in Israel’s past history to prove this point. Some poor defense ministers have gotten Israel into serious trouble. The same is true for some of our less qualified finance ministers. On the other hand, a good finance minister, and most will agree that Benjamin Netanyahu was one, can give the country’s economy a real boost. The sad state of Israel’s educational system is a heritage left behind by less-than-adequate education ministers.

There is little doubt that Israel in the years to come will be facing very challenging defense problems. The IDF will need guidance, direction and daily supervision from the defense minister. The economy, although in good shape, could quickly relapse into recession and rising unemployment if Netanyahu’s policies are suddenly thrown overboard, and excessive resources are diverted to accommodate some of the coalition partners. In the long run, increasing Israel’s economic strength and decreasing the large gap between rich and poor depends primarily on good education and the acquisition of skills by the country’s youth. Here is the job for the next education minister. He has to make up for much lost time in this field.

The right person in Defense, Finance, and Education will lend credibility and stability to the government, while the problems generated by ministers unsuitable for the job will draw criticism from all sides and destabilize the coalition.

Following the elections, the social agenda seems to have captured the imagination of most of our politicians. Amir Peretz’s insistence that he has awakened the country to the need for a social upheaval, and the astounding success of the Pensioners Party seems to lend credence to a feeling that the country has suddenly woken up to the existence of great social distress among a large part of the population that has been neglected for many years. Seemingly forgotten are the many years when chronic large-scale unemployment was considered Israel’s major social problem with no remedy in sight. The reforms introduced by the finance minister during the past three years have reminded everybody that only economic growth and the attendant creation of jobs alleviate this problem.

Pensioners are surely entitled to adequate compensation for their years of toil, but reverting to a policy of large-scale handouts and raising the minimum wage surely will bring us back to increasing unemployment and economic recession. This will bring no succor to the weaker elements of Israel’s society. The poorest of Israel’s society are concentrated among the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, Arab towns and villages, and the Beduin of the Negev. What they need is not more handouts but better education. The education their youngsters receive now will not qualify them to take their part in Israel’s high-technology economy when they grow up, and will leave them only further behind, widening the gap between rich and poor in the years to come.

By the looks of it, the next coalition is going to be far from stable, and Olmert’s talk about a government that will rule for the next four and a half years seems to be no more than wishful thinking. By the time the next elections roll around, Kadima may well have suffered the fate of Shinui, and we shall be back to a contest between Likud and Labor. The party’s fate depends on its behavior during the tenure of the present Knesset, with Labor as a partner in the Kadima-led coalition and Likud in opposition.

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