The last-minute decision overnight by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and newly-elected Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz to create a national unity government and avert early elections planned for Sept. 4 came as a surprise to both most Israelis and most observers of Israeli politics. Yet in retrospect, it was a move that made a lot of sense for both leaders.
For Mofaz (see Amotz Asa-El’s profile here), who had been a critic of his predecessor Tzipi Livni’s decision to lead Kadima into opposition following the 2009 elections, this was an opportunity to open a new chapter in the party’s history. Instead of being known as the party that led an ineffective opposition to the Netanyahu government, Kadima now has a chance to change that narrative by folding its platform into the government’s agenda and scoring some achievements.
To be sure, members of the Israeli Left who were convinced to vote for Kadima as an alternative to the Likud in the last election will feel betrayed. However, for Mofaz – who was looking down the barrel of polls that predicted Kadima would fare dismally in an early election – there was simply little to lose by entering a unity government even at this late stage.
In the case of Netanyahu, who never really appeared to have had any great reason to go to early elections in the first place, the rationale for entering a unity government with Kadima are more complex. The relatively popular Prime Minister does have something to lose, given that he was expected to win in the September early poll, so the move is riskier.
Early last year, when Netanyahu’s coalition absorbed Ehud Barak’s Labor breakaway party Independence after a split in then coalition-ally Labor saw the majority of that party leave the government, it was seamless. Independence simply assumed the position and portfolios that Labor once held. Kadima, which holds one more seat in this Knesset than Likud does, will be harder to assimilate into any coalition.
It is very likely that Kadima will push its agenda aggressively within the coalition to try and make a name for itself among the voters. In this way, the 94-seat coalition that awaits Netanyahu cannot be expected to be any more stable than the 66-seat coalition that preceded it.
One benefit for Netanyahu is that he is now expected to be able to formulate a solution to the previously seemingly intractable problem of finding a replacement for the Tal Law regarding the drafting of the Ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) into the IDF. The Israeli Supreme Court has invalidated the law and ordered it not been extended after August.
But up until now his coalition required the support of the secularist Yisrael Beitenu and the Charedi parties simultaneously, who take diametrically opposed positions on the drafting of Haredi students. This has now changed.
Yesterday, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party blocked a bill on the issue – something it will no longer have the power to do in a unity government.
According to a Charedi news website, the Charedi parties are now expected to evaluate whether it is worthwhile for them to remain part of a unity government under new coalition guidelines.
In addition, National Unity could provide Netanyahu with greater credibility and legitimacy for threatening a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program if negotiations fail. On the other hand, Mofaz has been critical of the Netanyahu Government’s handling of the Iran. It is unclear what understandings may have been made between Netanyahu and Mofaz over Kadima’s role in the decision-making process regarding the Iran issue.
The question that is already being asked by the likes of the Times of Israel‘s editor David Horovitz is: now that Netanyahu’s government has gained the support of the full centre of Israeli politics, what is going to change?
The Prime Minister, who has in the past been able to point to his coalition constraints as limiting his options in the face of US demands, will find a new set of expectations from Washington greeting him after his unity government deal is signed.
For example, in a September 2010 press conference, US President Barack Obama took Netanyahu off the hook for not agreeing to extend his unilateral moratorium on construction within the settlements.
“Now, I think the politics for Prime Minister Netanyahu are very difficult. His coalition — I think there are a number of members of his coalition who’ve said, we don’t want to continue this.”
Even in this US presidential election season, when the Obama Administration will be loathe to be seen as pressuring Israel, you can expect increased expectations from US and the Mideast Quartet on the revamped Netanyahu government to make key concessions to the Palestinian Authority in an attempt to lure the PA back to negotiations.
Kadima, which in Opposition had depicted Netanyahu as weak on the peace process, will be eager to show its constituents that Netanyahu can be rehabilitated – with Kadima’s help. For Netanyahu, his challenge will be to vindicate his decision to postpone elections by showing that a unity government will be an improvement over the previous coalition in terms of what it can deliver to the Israeli public.
Otherwise, the Prime Minister risks validating the cynical criticisms waged by the presumptive new Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovitch of Labor, as well as Zehava Gal-On of Meretz and up-and-coming Centrist hopeful Yair Lapid, who are portraying the move by Likud and Kadima as nothing more than political opportunism at the expense of the country.
As the Times of Israel reported:
Yachimovich denounced the deal as “an alliance of cowards and the most ridiculous and ludicrous zigzag in Israeli political history.”
Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Gal-On called the formation of the national unity government “an odious act” and said that Netanyahu and Mofaz had sent a disgraceful message to the public.
Yair Lapid, who likely must now wait until the scheduled elections in November 2013 to enter the political fray, scorned the deal as “old politics, corrupt and ugly… politics of seats instead of principles, of jobs instead of the public good, the group’s interests instead of the entire country. This disgusting political alliance will bury all of its members beneath itself.”
For more commentary on Mofaz’s zig-zag, read Raphael Ahren at the Times of Israel here, and Ynet‘s Attila Somfalvi here, The Jerusalem Post‘s report on the unity deal here, and Ha’aretz‘s report here.