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.