To the surprise of most political analysts both in Israel and America, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Kadima Party head Shaul Mofaz this week unexpectedly announced an agreement to form a new coalition to govern Israel. It was unexpected in part because after Mofaz defeated Tzipi Livini in April to become head of Kadima, he repeatedly attacked Netanyahhu and publicly stated that he intended "to replace Netanyahu" and "I will not join his government." However, Mr. Mofaz has shown such political flexibility before, as for example when a month after announcing his candidacy for leadership of the Likud Party he joined Kadima.
Notwithstanding the coalition's birth in misdirection, however, farsighted Israelis see it as opening the possibility for important long needed changes on four fronts.
The first front is electoral reform, called for by the coalition agreement. When I first met Netanyahu in 1988, among the topics we discussed was the need for electoral reform, which he predicted too optimistically that Israel would see in five years. Now with a coalition that is not dependent on the small parties who traditionally oppose such reform, the door is open for reducing the power of the small parties and establishing a system where at least some significant part of the parliament is elected directly by the electorate and responsive to them and not to the party leaders.
The second front is to focus on changes regarding the status of large numbers of religious seminary students. Although their fellow Israelis are required to serve in the army for three years and then continue in the reserves, most ultra orthodox students do not serve in the army or even provide some form of national service. This goes back to a deal connected with the early history of Israel when Israel's leader David Ben-Gurion agreed to exempt some 400 ultra-orthodox seminary students from military service. But those students have grown to many thousands and there is great resentment from those who are conscripted and have to devote years of their lives to serve their country. In 2002, legislation was enacted dealing with "Deferral of National Service for Yeshiva Students" known as the Tal Law after Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Tal who headed the Committee that recommended the legislation. The Tal Law was declared unconstitutional in February and was due to expire in August. Thus, the difficult issue had to be addressed. The coalition agreement calls for Parliament to require national or military service for all citizens including ultra-orthodox Jews. Now, with less power in the hands of the religious parties that make up a coalition it is hoped that new legislation will at least require some form of national service. And although it is not mentioned specifically, such new legislation could have an impact on the service requirements of Israeli Arabs, who with few exceptions neither serve in the military nor perform national service.
A related area that needs to be addressed is the educational requirements for the ultra-orthodox students. At present, thousands of religious students are not being educated to prepare them to be self-supporting and contribute to the economic development of their country. Instead they grow up to become a burden on the rest of their countrymen/women who need to work to support both themselves and the religious students who live on government subsidies. How to educate these students in even rudimentary non-religious subjects is a problem that must be addressed.
The third front is the Israeli economy. In recent weeks the economy, which had been quite strong for a long time, is showing weakness with falling exports, increasing unemployment and rising national debt. Although Netnyahu had previously committed to reducing taxes, the new coalition will have to face the issue of controlling the nation's debt by increasing the VAT and corporate taxes.
The final issue is the peace process with the Palestinians. I have previously pointed out in The Huffington Post ("Can Their Leaders Make the Very Hard Decisions Required for Peacemaking Between Israel and the Palestinians? 10/3/11 ) that even if Netanyahu were inclined to make a deal with the Palestinians to bring about a two state solution, it would require him to convince his then coalition to support a forced displacement of settlers. That coalition included his own right-wing Likud party with the very nationalistic Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the religious Shas party.
"Under those circumstances," I noted, "Netanyahu could well fear for his political life." The new coalition with Kadima and Mofaz, a former head of the Israel Defense Force and minister of defense under Sharon, who has repeatedly stated his support for a deal with the Palestinians, offers the best opportunity in years to engage the Palestinians and for "advancing a responsible peace process" as Netanyahu has said. To be sure, there is little expectation that the Obama Administration, fully engaged as it is in election politics, will get involved now in pushing the parties towards a peace deal. So, the parties are on their own to deal with each other. But the political conditions are better than they have been in a long time to make a deal. There is no assurance that even with Mofaz's support Netanyahu will agree to a deal that the Palestinians can accept. Still, they would be wise to fully engage with this coalition government in trying to resolve the issues between them.
In sum, the new coalition brings with it opportunity for Israel to make necessary and desirable changes in the internal structure of their political systems and programs and external changes in their relationships with the Palestinians and the Arab nations. These are difficult long-term issues and one can only hope that the opportunity will be realized.
Mr. Lifton, a businessman and political activist is writing a book entitled "Life's Lessons and Stories from a Member of the "Greatest Generation.'"
Follow Robert K. Lifton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Robert K. Lifto