The surprise overnight announcement cancelling plans for early Israeli elections and establishing a Likud-Kadima national unity government (with 94 of 120 MKs in the coalition!) cannot be read as just another crafty re-jiggering of the political map. It can only be explained as preparation for tackling the biggest of all challenges: the Iranian nuclear threat.
Obviously, this political ‘big bang’ would not have taken place unless it served the narrow political interests of all involved: Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, who wants a stable government to take him to the end of 2013 and who aims to subsume and bury Kadima; Shaul Mofaz of Kadima, who would likely have been decimated at the polls in September; Ehud Barak of Atzmaut, who might have been eliminated electorally; and Avigdor Lieberman of Israel Beiteinu, who had boxed himself and the coalition government into a corner on the issue of equitable military draft.
The ‘big bang’ also delivers body blows to Shelly Yachimovich’s surging Labor party and Yair Lapid’s hot new Yesh Atid party. They will now languish in opposition (or oblivion) for a long time. From the perspectives of Netanyahu and Mofaz, this is simply delicious.
It is also true that this very broad-based new government can more easily deal with the three most vexing issues on the Israeli domestic agenda: replacing the Tal Law regarding the draft of haredim; passing a budget for 2013-2014; and reforming Israel’s electoral system. Starry-eyed Israeli analysts are dreaming about a new Israeli peace initiative on the Palestinian front too. With his rock-solid political base Netanyahu will be better able to tackle these issues, and others like settlement outposts as well.
But I doubt that real revolutions are to be expected, nor do I think that these matters are uppermost in the Prime Minister’s mind.
The margin for significant policy change on any of the above issues is slim. Realistically, a new arrangement for pressurizing and incentivizing haredim to participate in the workforce and do civil or military service – will end up as a compromise deal that brings marginal and gradual progress, at best. Next year’s budget will inevitably be a draconian austerity budget with increased military spending that pays only lip service to the heightened demands for social and economic justice.
Mild reform of the political system is possible, but more far-reaching reforms will be stifled by ethnic and religious pressure groups, I suspect. There is no sensible Palestinian partner for realistic negotiations, and neither Netanyahu, Mofaz nor Barak are going to support any more unilateral withdrawals.
This brings us to Iran, which is the one issue on which far-reaching and momentous decisions are imminent. Netanyahu’s government and inner cabinet now includes three former IDF chiefs-of-staff (Barak, Yaalon, and Mofaz), something which in itself is a form of deterrence. This ought to give pause to the Iranians and the Obama administration, and to stiffen the backs of the P5+1 negotiators. It is an important counter-weight to the nasty insinuations of “irresponsibility and messianism” in government decision-making regarding Iran made by former intelligence chiefs Dagan and Diskin.
I know that Mofaz truly intended to run a serious campaign against Netanyahu this fall, and was building a professional electoral machine to undermine Likud’s political base among disadvantaged segments of the population. Unlike many other analysts, I have never dismissed Mofaz’s abilities or underdog chances, nor been over-impressed by the current polls giving Netanyahu a crushing lead. If Mofaz nevertheless has now decided to join a national unity government with Netanyahu, he must know something we don’t. He must understand that a confrontation with Iran is coming, and that national responsibility dictates a closing of ranks.
As my wife left the house this morning to go shopping, I suggested to her that it’s time to stock up on batteries and bottled water.
Note: Two of my recent columns foreshadowed this development: My article entitled National Unity, Now (March 28) called on Kadima to join Netanyhau’s government, which is what just happened! On May 1, I wrote An Unnecessary and Unhelpful Israeli Election which called early elections “an expensive and debilitating nuisance” and asked: “What do we need an election campaign for now? We already have a reasonable government that represents what most of the public wants and what is realistically attainable. Moreover, it’s about time that we allowed a government to govern for a full term. The stability is good for the country.”