A few days ago, the morning news began with two key items. The first item was that progress had been made in negotiations to form a government and it looked as if both Yesh Atid headed by Yair Lapid and Bayit Yehudi lead by Naftali Bennett would be main coalition partners. The second item was that President Obama had communicated to Netanyahu that he was expecting Israel to commit to a withdrawal timetable from Judea and Samaria during his upcoming visit to Israel.
On the surface, these two notices do not seem to be connected in any way. But a deeper look at the Israeli political climate today tells us a great deal about both.
Many have wondered how it is that Yair Lapid, long associated with the left of center in Israeli politics, and Naftali Bennett, former head of the Yesha Council and a long-time right wing ideologue, could come together in such a strong political bond. Since the election results were announced with Lapid receiving 19 seats and Bennett 12, the two made a pact that neither would enter the government without the other. This surprised many because Lapid’s party had been counted with the left while Bennett’s party had been counted with the right.
In fact, however, Lapid had emphasized on many occasions during the campaign that he was neither right nor left and he positioned himself in the amorphous center of the political spectrum. In addition, a look at the people who make up Lapid’s list of Knesset members indicates that his list is actually extremely varied. There are two Orthodox rabbis on his list who are definitely not left-wing but on the other hand, he has a few members who have been associated with left-wing policies. It is difficult to understand what holds these disparate politicians together but there is one over-riding value they all share – the need to reach consensus through respect and discussion.
One of Lapid’s most interesting members is Ruth Caldaron. Caldaron has a doctorate in Talmud and her first Knesset speech drew heavily from the rabbinic traditions and midrashic literature that form the basis of her academic expertise. She identifies herself as a secular woman with an amazing love for the traditions and literature of our sages. And her speech addressed her own determination that Jews all over Israel receive a better education in the Bible and Jewish traditions, that even those who choose not to practice our religion as the Orthodox do, should be exposed and enriched by the amazing wisdom of the rabbis throughout the ages.
This speech was like a breath of fresh air and the youtube clip of her speech went viral. Here was a secular woman who stood for traditional values and who was calling for a broader traditional education for all the youth of Israel. And this is a call that is coming more and more from the secular world. In fact, Calderon herself founded two different schools that enable secular and religious adults to come together over religious texts and discuss and debate their meanings in an atmosphere of pluralism and tolerance.
Naftali Bennett represents a newer version of a very old, traditional party – the national religious party. This party has always represented the religious Zionist community in Israel, who, by definition, subscribe to an ideology that the State of Israel in its most secular form is the expression of a deep religious value and that religious Jews should take part in every facet of Israeli society. But the assumption of this party, throughout the years, has always been that religious education and religious institutions serve the religious population of Israel. Bennett has changed all that and has placed the Bayit Yehudi Party on a pathway that seeks to embrace Jews from all walks of life who value tradition and Jewish education. He seeks to ensure that every Jewish child, and adult, is exposed to the richness of the Jewish traditions, to Bible and the Talmud.
So, really, both Bennett and Lapid are looking for similar things but coming from different perspectives. Bennett, as a religious man, is seeking to share his religious values with others. Lapid, as a secular man, is seeking to be exposed to traditional sources with the freedom to interpret them in his own way.
But the left-right divide that has been so prevalent in Israeli politics for decades, has traditionally been about diverging opinions on security and borders. The left has traditionally supported territorial withdrawal while the right has supported a more conservative stand, both for hawkish / security reasons and for religious / biblical reasons. In most countries of the world, left and right refer primarily to economic issues, but in Israel there is rarely a correlation between those who support a left-wing economic stand and those who support a left-wing security stand, and vice versa.
Both Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid represent right-wing conservative stands on economics, a position shared by the Likud and Zippy Livni’s party as well. So as these parties join together to form a government, they will find consensus on economic issues and find it relatively easy to pass a budget, the most immediate goal of this new government.
So what divides these two parties? There is no question that there would be great difficulties in reaching consensus on the ideal borders of Israel, not only between these two parties, but within these parties and within the Likud as well. These parties contain members of Knesset who run the full gamut from supporting annexation of parts of Judea and Samaria, to support for a limited Palestinian State or Autonomy, to support for nearly total withdrawal and the removal of additional communities. But the reason these parties can join together is because there is a consensus in Israel that the issues of borders are just not relevant now. Even left-wing politicians merely pay lip service to the notion of a two state solution. They, too, know that this is not a realistic issue right now, simply because the Arabs have no interest in compromise.
And that brings us back to President Obama. Obama’s statement about a timetable for withdrawal indicates that he is stuck in the rhetoric of years past. That is not to say that there isn’t a problem with the Arabs in our area. But solutions that call for removal of Jewish communities and the withdrawal of Israel from these central areas of Israel are just not relevant right now. Similarly, Obama’s continued insistence on a sanctions and diplomacy effort with Iran reveals a serious misunderstanding of the reality in that country. While I am not seriously worried about an imminent withdrawal from Judea and Samaria, we have plenty to worry about with regard to Iran. Let’s hope and pray that Obama, as well as political leaders all over the world, figure out the realities that govern the world we live in today and abandon the dreams and rhetoric that may have once been relevant but are hopelessly out of date.