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Elections called off; Kadima joins huge Netanyahu coalition

With 94 out of the Knesset’s 120 members behind him, the prime minister might have enough political support to launch war with Iran despite the opposition within the security establishment.

This was the shortest election cycle in history: On Sunday, Likud brought to a Knesset vote a bill moving elections up to September 4, officially launching a four-month campaign season. Less then 48 hours later, the elections were cancelled. Kadima, it was announced, will join Netanyahu’s coalition, and Israelis will only go to the polls a year and a half from now, in October 2013. Since the legislation of the elections bill wasn’t complete, there wasn’t even any need for a second and third Knesset vote.

According to the agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima’s newly elected leader, Shaul Mofaz, the 2013 elections will herald a different system of government – probably one giving more power to the executive branch, either in the form of a direct vote for prime minister, or securing the position of prime minister for the leader of the Knesset’s largest party.

The two sides also agreed to promote a new arrangement by the end of July regarding national service for the ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian citizens. In exchange, Mofaz will be given a ministerial post in the government, and Kadima’s 28 Knesset members will join the coalition.

Netanyahu is now the leader of a record-breaking coalition (*) of 94 MKs (out of the Knesset’s 120), a Putin-like support network that buffers him on both sides, left and right, enabling controversial moves that include a possible strike in Iran. As demonstrated by recent statements by the former heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet, there is strong opposition to an attack from within the security establishment, and being backed by such a huge Knesset majority could help Netanyahu and Barak secure political support if indeed they decide to launch an attack.


This political maneuver will be remembered for years, like “the brilliant move” that led to the fall of Rabin in 1977, or Sharon’s split of the Likud that resulted in the forming of Kadima. The announcement on the national unity government came so late that Israel’s two biggest tabloids – the centrist Yedioth Ahronoth and the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom – ran a second morning edition. Yet while political pundits are praising Netanyahu this morning for his newfound political skills, it’s important to remember that elections are still not that far off, and that the political challenges facing the Israeli leadership – ranging from the Palestinians to the social protest – remain unchanged.

What made this move possible? In my opinion, there were two elements at play: Kadima crashed in the polls after Mofaz’s victory in the party’s primaries a couple of months ago, and the new party leader was under considerable pressure to give its 27 Knesset members another year in the parliament. Mofaz probably hopes that the coming months will help him position himself as a national leader, but I am not sure that the Israeli public will ever look favorably upon someone who changed his position so many times. Still, stopping the steady rise of other opposition leaders – most notably, former Channel 2 anchorman Yair Lapid – probably makes this move worthwhile for Mofaz.

Prime Minister Netanyahu for his part must have had second thoughts about elections, especially since all recent polls had him winning the exact same Knesset majority he has now. At the height of his popularity, Netanyahu seems unable to break the 30-something seat threshold; ultimately, he had more to lose than to gain in elections.

The final push for the new agreement was probably yesterday’s High Court ruling on the evacuation of the Ulpana neighborhood in the settlement of Beit El, built on private Palestinian land. With elections around the corner, this would have become for Netanyahu a public showdown with either the settlers or with the court – and possibly both. By postponing the elections, the prime minister has bought himself some time to deal with the crisis.

It remains to be seen what effect this political drama will have on Israeli policy. Except for the first Lebanon war, the Israeli right has never initiated large-scale military operations while ruling over a narrow coalition. With both Mofaz and Barak on his side, Netanyahu might be more comfortable with the use of military force against Iran’s nuclear facilities and elsewhere.

It’s true that Shaul Mofaz has expressed serious doubts regarding the strike in the past, but Kadima’s leader also said that he would never join Netanyahu’s “bad” government, and even called the prime minister “a liar.” Mofaz has demonstrated again and again that at any given moment, he prefers the immediate political interest, so he cannot really be trusted to lead the opposition to the attack, this time from the inside.

The new government also gives Netanyahu room to maneuver on the Palestinian issue, but developments on that front are not very likely. Nothing will happen before the U.S. elections in November, and right after those take place, Israel will finally enter its own elections year. This time, even Netanyahu won’t be able to postpone them.


(*) UPDATE (following questions from readers): This is the largest coalition in the last couple of decades but not in Israeli history: a couple of unity governments in the eighties were even larger. 

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    1. XYZ

      I think everyone in the political spectrum benefits from this.
      People on the Right are basically satisfied with the current gov’t and so it will continue in power longer. The so-called “peace process is at the mercy of the Arabs who don’t want it, so KADIMAH will merely be stating the obvious that there is no point in making concessions which they do by joining the gov’t.
      The Left will benefit because it will not expel the ideology-free KADIMAH party from the Left-wing bloc and Shelli Yechimovich can now lead a Left-wing bloc that will attempt to create a modern social-democratic ideology after the Labor party threw out the old socialist system that was set up years ago . Labor first made this move after the unity gov’t was set up in 1984, but this left the Israeli Left without a clear ideology until now.

      Regarding the Ulpana crisis in Beit El where the Supreme Court has ordered a whole neighborhood knocked down that was built on good faith with governmental permission-I fail to see why the supposed Arab owners of the land can’t be given compensation..either alternative land or money. Why does it have to be knocked down and dozens of families thrown out of their homes?

      Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      I meant to say that Mofaz will have KADIMAH thrown out of the Left-wing bloc leaving Labor and MERETZ to attempt to create a more coherent social-democratic ideology which doesn’t exist now on the Left, partly because KADIMAH was the leading party yet it was proud to say it had no ideology, leaving the Left rudderless in an ideological sense.

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    3. Shlomo Krol

      We never know, we’ll see. May be the government which is that strong will finally be able to crack down of illegal settlements outposts, freeze settlements construction, make serious peace offer to the Palestinians. Why not? There are intelligent people in the government, who understand well what Israel really needs. May be with Kadima joining the government, the influence of Dany Danon, Zeev Elkin, Moshe Feiglin and their ilk lessen. We’ll see, the way the history develops may surprize us.

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    4. Richard Witty

      This is all short-term political manueuvering, to avoid irrelevance and loss of power.

      Netanyahu called early elections because of the sequence relative to the American.

      If elections were called after the Israeli, then Netanyahu would be seen as being controlled by the American sequence, and then if Obama won again and the US Congress turned at all to the left, that Obama would have room to change his policies towards Israel, which Netanyahu could not confront directly.

      Kadima joined the coalition because it also realized that it didn’t have the means to develop a platform that they could rely on, and that they would lose seats, and beyond the critical mass of minority (relative to the whole knesset), needed to be part of governance at all.

      A centrist party cannot remain outside of government in a parliamentary one, and not incrementally dissolve. Centrist parties are by definition fundamentally coalition parties, NOT opposition parties.

      I don’t think this makes a green light for war on Iran. Only the US can provide that. Israel is not physically capable of a successful mission without US (and allies) support. It needs the logistics, diplomatic, and intelligence support that the US provides through influence over its allies.

      I think it is largely a move to secure the loyalty of the US. The US cannot call Israel a democracy, and actively confront a super-majority coalition.

      The move is most profoundly a symptom of the irrelevance of the left currently, which although whined about, is more than partially earned.

      There has been very little liberal-left organizing (as in party and in election efforts), on either of the scope of liberal-left agenda (peace and internal social equality).

      Whereas Abbas in the last two-three years created a very very plausible argument for the Israeli left for the prospect of peace, the left preferred to rant that the two-state approach was impossible (rather than difficult, an impossible effort you abandon, a difficult effort you work harder at).

      How many times was it repeated that Abbas is just a quisling, thereby internally confirming the likud argument that “there is no negotiating partner”.

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    5. Richard Witty

      In the third sentence above, that should be after the American elections.

      Reply to Comment
    6. ya3ov

      @RichardWitty Richard, is it clear for you yet that the two-state solution is over?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Joel

      I hope this means Bibi has become too greedy for his own good. Even if he got the whole coalition’s support with Iran, there are so many domestic issues (already on the table and possibly/probably coming) that will split the coalition that he will have a helluwa time keeping it together. Barak, Lieberman and Mofaz are all opportunistic enough to turn their coats again many times during the next 18 months. And once he looses one, either the settler right or kadima, the remaining party will have a lot of power over him.
      And heaven help if he manages to avoid all domestic issues, by starting a war with Iran… but I also can’t see anyone participating in that getting re-elected (whenever the elections then can be held).
      But mostly, I’m just gaping. Time will tell what happens. Any predictions are clearly on shaky legs.

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    8. “Barak, Lieberman and Mofaz are all opportunistic enough to turn their coats again many times during the next 18 months.”
      Mofaz has quite a spectacular way of doing that, it would seem:
      Barely six weeks ago, too. Perhaps next time he will be a bit more discreet and subtle in the way he words his promises. This one comes across as very emphatic.

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    9. I put this comment at the bottom of the thread from May 5 about the Ben Kaspit story, because that seemed ike the first logical place for it, but here I shall ask the question again. Ben Kaspit wrote: “AIPAC evaluated that based on polls, Obama will also be the next president. Bibi knew not to go to the campaign when Obama is in his second term. It’s a dangerous gamble. Between Obama and Bibi is a deep loathing, and Obama might try to do to Bibi what Bill Clinton did to him in 1999, and what Bush Sr did to Yitzhak Shamir in 1992.” But now Netanyahu has extended his government back to its original length, i.e. until Oct 2013. Does this mean Netanyahu thinks Romney will win in Nov 2012, or that he just doesn’t feel threatened by anything Obama might try to do to him during a second term?

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    10. XYZ

      It seems like Obama has learned a lot about the Arab-Israeli conflict in the last 4 years. It has been reported that Obama spent hours on the phone trying to persuade Abbas to engage in talks with Israel or to make some sort of indication that he wanted a compromise peace agreement, all for naught. Thus, I think Netanyahu realizes that Obama has come to understand the true nature of the situation and that there is nothing he can do to accelerate the parties to a compromise peace agreement.

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    11. Well, if you look at the next story along on +972, it’s Larry Derfner saying that the idea of this is so that Bibi can stage his attack on Iran. I don’t think Bibi really thinks the ayatollahs intend to nuke Israel; he just wants to attack Iran anyway. If Bibi does that, Obama will get dragged into the war, but it won’t prevent him from being elected for a second term, because he will say he was always against it and tried to prevent it and is determined to play the damage limiter. So, not only Bibi but the entire US neocon policy crowd will take the blame, because the majority of USAians blame Israel for all the neocons’ wars anyway.

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    12. Piotr Berman

      “There are intelligent people in the government, who understand well what Israel really needs. May be with Kadima joining the government, the influence of Dany Danon, Zeev Elkin, Moshe Feiglin and their ilk lessen…”

      Who are those people? Here you list those that are not.

      Reply to Comment
    13. AYLA

      Thanks, Noam. This place may just be even crazier than I’d thought. And it seems that whatever the government does, the people accept as permissible, simply because they did it, so it must be doable.

      Reply to Comment