Wednesday June 2, 2021, will go down as a historic day in the history of the State of Israel.
As I mentioned towards the end of my email to you Wednesday morning, the Knesset elected Yitzhak Herzog as the next President of Israel. I mentioned then that President-Elect Herzog spent his high school years in New York City when his late father Chaim Herzog (who also subsequently was President of Israel) served as Israel’s UN Ambassador. Yitzhak Herzog attended Ramaz, a flagship Modern Orthodox school, for high school. What I did not know on Wednesday morning is that Yitzhak Herzog also spent at least one summer on the staff of Camp Ramah, which obviously is at least part of the reason why he is familiar with and friendly towards Conservative Judaism.
The much more significant event was the signing of a coalition agreement to create Israel’s next government. The negotiations were complicated and took quite a long time and the agreement was signed 35 minutes before the deadline which would have ended Yair Lapid’s mandate to put together a coalition. If the deadline passed, the mandate would have returned to the Knesset and the result would have most likely been a fifth round of elections.
I’m assuming at least some basic familiarity with the Israeli political system but perhaps a brief primer is in order. Israel is a parliamentary system unlike our presidential system. Israelis do not vote directly for the Prime Minister and therefore the kind of situation we have here fairly frequently where the President is of one party and one or both houses of congress are controlled by the other party is impossible. A government is created by a vote of confidence in the Knesset and remains in power only as long as it has majority support in the Knesset, meaning at least 61 of the 120 members willing to give their support.
The complicating factor is that the Knesset is chosen by proportional representation, not by districts. The entire country is in essence one district and Israelis vote for a party list, not an individual representative. The parties get seats in the Knesset according to their proportion of the vote -- so if a party gets ten percent of the vote, it gets twelve seats (ten percent of the Knesset) and the first twelve names on its list are sworn in. Since no party in the history of Israel has ever received an absolute majority, every government has been a coalition.
After an election the President tasks the leader of the largest party with putting together a coalition. He or she has 4 weeks to do so and if they cannot, the President gives someone else -- generally the leader of the next-largest party -- the mandate, and he or she also has four weeks. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to put together a coalition, President Reuven Rivlin gave the mandate to Yair Lapid, the head of the second-largest party. In an unprecedented move, he put together a governing coalition which will not put him in the Prime Minister’s office but rather Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Yamina party. Lapid will serve as Foreign Minister as well as Vice Prime Minister, and if the coalition government lasts long enough, Lapid and Bennett will switch places after about two years. This rotation (רוֹטַציָה in Hebrew) is not unprecedented. Back in the 1980s the late Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres had a רוֹטַציָה agreement and in the previous Knesset Prime Minister Netanyahu had a רוֹטַציָה agreement with Benny Gantz, which he broke.
But having the leader of a smaller party is not the only unprecedented thing and certainly not the most important. The coalition for the first time includes Ra’am, an Arab Israeli party which is explicitly Islamist. Bennett, as noted above, heads a right-wing party and in many ways is even more right-wing than Netanyahu. But while he may agree with much of Netanyahu’s policy agenda, he grew to mistrust Netanyahu’s personal characteristics and concluded that change was needed.
Similarly Mansour Abbas, the head of Ra’am, realized that if Israeli Arabs seek their fair share of power in the system as well as governmental services, they have to be part of the solution. Most of Ra’am’s demands deal with increasing funding for education and security in the Arab sector, but they also demanded that there be no new legislation expanding the rights of the LGBT community -- Ra’am is, after all, an Islamist party.
It’s not 100 percent certain that this new government will actually be sworn in since they haven’t yet received a Knesset vote of confidence. There are exactly 61 members of the new coalition and if even one changes their mind, the deal falls apart. The Knesset speaker, who is from Netanyahu’s Likud party, said at one point that he might just never hold the vote. But this morning he concluded that there was nothing he could legally do to prevent the new government from coming to power and he did not want to go down in history as an enemy of democracy.
The change from Netanyahu to Bennett is not like the change from Trump to Biden. It’s more analogous to going from Trump to Ted Cruz, but Biden is Cruz’s Vice President and AOC and Rashida Tlaib are important members of the Cabinet.
Israel aspires to be both a Jewish state and a state of all its citizens, and there is clearly tension between these two aspirations. Until now there has been an unwritten rule against including Arab parties in the governing coalition -- the taboo coming from both the Jewish parties and Israeli Arabs themselves. Bennett is no less right-wing than Netanyahu but in heading a government which includes Ra’am, he has taken a huge step towards making Israel truly a state of all its citizens.
As always, if you need to talk or I can do anything for you, please contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office as at the moment I continue to work mostly from home, although having been vaccinated I am available for in-person meetings in my synagogue office by request.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian