Israeli coalition drama, February edition

It’s a (sort of) new month, and you know what that means: Time for an update on Israeli coalition in-fighting!

In our December episode, combative Finance Minister Yair Lapid put his foot down in support of a peace agreement.


In January, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett squared off on West Bank withdrawal.

Now, Lapid is back. Members of his centrist Yesh Atid party have taken to the streets twice in recent weeks to drum up public support for a peace agreement under the tagline “Separating for Peace.” (The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, also means “goodbye.”) This while Lapid’s erstwhile brother-in-arms, Bennett, gets in trouble for publicly criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s positions on the peace talks.

Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, kept the intra-coalition conflict going today. Party officials criticized newly-conciliatory Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman for “rejoicing in American praise… in order to be popular,” and “intentionally zigzagging” ideologically by supporting the peace talks.

For good measure, Livni said last week that government ministers who disparage Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace efforts “embarrass me as an Israeli.” Livni’s party, Hatnua, campaigned on the platform of a two-state solution; Livni heads the Israeli delegation to the negotiations, and has previously called for Jewish Home to leave the coalition.

But the freshest threat to the coalition doesn’t even stem from the peace talks. In fact, it comes from one issue everyone was supposed to agree on: the need to include the haredi Orthodox in Israel’s mandatory draft.

Over the weekend, Lapid threatened to leave the coalition if the proposed law to expand the draft doesn’t include criminal charges for haredi draft dodgers — an issue still under debate. On Sunday, Yesh Atid MKs took to the streets, like they did in “Separating for Peace,” to get Israelis behind a tough draft law. Draft reform was one of Yesh Atid’s signature issues in last year’s campaign.

All of these coalition tremors, of course, could well come to naught. Throughout the raucous history of Israeli politics, threats to break up the coalition have come frequently enough.

But with the U.S. about to propose a framework for peace talks that Israel may support, and with the controversial draft bill due soon for a vote on the Knesset floor, Lapid, Bennett, Livni and even Netanyahu will be facing some of their biggest tests since they cobbled their fragile government together, less than one year ago.

Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.