Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled a fast one, just as the Knesset was moving toward its dissolution in preparation for the Sept. 4 elections. Netanyahu struck a deal with Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz, who recently toppled party leader Tzipi Livni, to form a unity government. The left (a shadow of its former self) is apoplectic, with Meretz head Zahava Gal-On calling it a “mega-stinking maneuver by a prime minister who wants to avoid elections and a desperate opposition chairman facing a crash.” For reasons I’ll explain below, the Israel-bashing left in the United States is likely to grind its teeth as well.
The deal will raise speculation that the move is intended to broaden Netanyahu’s support and free him from a campaign battle (albeit one he was going to win overwhelmingly) in order to deal with Iran. This, however, may be premature. In fact, Mofaz recently expressed skepticism about an early strike on Iran:
“To me, the threat that Israeli will become a bi-national state is far more serious than the Iranian nuclear issue. An early Israeli attack [on Iran], in a period that still has not seen a full international effort [against the nuclear program] has two dangers. The biggest is a war, and the second is an acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program.”
An Israeli expert with whom I spoke this morning indicated that in a visit he had with Mofaz in January, Mofaz expressed serious reservations about a unilateral strike. “He was deeply concerned about the day-after scenarios,” the expert told me.
That said, it is nearly inconceivable that Netanyahu would have made this move, bypassing elections, only to limit his options regarding Iran. In a piece entitled “Forget That No-October-Surprise-Iran Attack Business I Was Talking About Before,” Jeffrey Goldberg observes that “it means that Netanyahu can proceed apace with whatever he’s thinking about doing re: Iran’s nuclear sites. This is not to say that he brought Kadima into his coalition to clear the way for an attack; Mofaz — Iranian-born, by the way — is on record as opposing an Iran strike, although people I speak to say he would back such a strike in a crunch (namely, if he saw proof that Iran was rapidly approaching the ‘zone of immunity,’ in which it could enrich uranium in impregnable bunkers).” We should look for early comments by Mofaz as to whether he is on the same page as Netanyahu with regard to Iran.
Today, Netanyahu announced a coalition with 94 seats in the Knesset, the largest in Israeli history and just the sort of unified government he will need if military action is required. He declared that “here we’re together, Shaul and I and the rest of the coalition, saying we’re pulling together for four main issues: to pass a fair and equal replacement of the Tal Law; to pass a responsible budget; to change the system of governance; and, lastly, to try and promote a responsible peace process.”
The unity deal’s most significant implications may be on the domestic side, as David Horvitz of the Times of Israel observes:
At the eleventh hour, just before his colleagues were set to vote the 18th Knesset into history, Netanyahu achieved a whole slew of tactical victories. He widened his coalition to include the largest party in parliament, signing the deal with Mofaz that he and the former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni could not bring themselves to ratify no matter how beneficial each might have believed it to be for their parties and the nation. He now heads a vast coalition in which the minor parties immediately muster less influence and have consequently less capacity to try to manipulate the national agenda for their narrower needs.
Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman may have quickly welcomed the deal, but it reduces his party’s ability to threaten coalition crises over legislation such as the successor to the Tal Law on national service for the ultra-Orthodox.
The ability to alter the Tal Law, which has become a source of controversy and resentment in Israel (but reform of which has been blocked by critical small coalition partners) is huge for Netanyahu. Indeed the unity arrangement not only downgrades the influence of the small parties but deals a blow to the Labor Party (Labor could have picked up additional seats in the election), and it may eventually pave the way for the reintegration of Kadima back into Likud.
In short, if the arrangement works as planned, Netanyahu will throw off thestraitjacket of the religious parties, usher in replacement of the Tal Law, give himself the broadest possible support for an Iranian strike and lay the groundwork for the potential for a grand reconciliation with Kadima. The left leaning Ha’aretz listed the “losers” in this deal this way:
On the list of losers are the parties that were expected to come out on top in early elections, particularly the Israel Labor Party. Labor is in momentum, and was meant to double its power in the Knesset with early elections. . . .
[Leftist] Meretz was also happy to go to early elections, and according to polls the party was set to double its power in the Knesset with the vote in September. Meretz, however, never intended to enter a government headed by Netanyahu, and it looked like its future was as an opposition party.
Another prominent loser is Yair Lapid, the veteran TV anchor who left his television career earlier this year to launch a political one. Lapid only recently launched his new party — Yesh Atid — and has been busy getting ready for early elections. Now he’ll have to wait another year and a half until the next elections. . . .
It also looks as if Tzipi Livni, former leader of Kadima, does not benefit from the move either. Since announcing that she was leaving politics earlier this month, Livni has turned into desirable stock in the elections market, with Mofaz calling on her to return to the fold. Now, she will have to follow her fellow party members who have turned into coalition members from home.
You can add to the list of losers the anti-Israel left in the United States. A more broad-based, secularized government with latitude to strike Iran and to move cautiously on the “peace process”? J Street’s worst nightmare — an emboldened Netanyahu without the baggage of the religious right. Good luck stirring up opposition to that here or in Israel.
The irony is rich. Netanyahu is riding high while his nemesis, President Obama, is struggling for his political life. The latter will be in a weakened position to challenge the former on Iran or much else for the balance of the year.