On May 7, Israelis went to sleep thinking they were heading for an election in September, 18 months before it was required by law. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently decided to call an early vote in order to capitalize on his high poll numbers and strengthen his hand with smaller parties in the Knesset.
When they awoke on May 8, Israelis learned that Netanyahu had struck a deal with Shaul Mofaz, the new leader of the centrist Kadima party, giving the Likud prime minister a strong national unity coalition by adding Kadima’s 28 seats. (I guess the PM went for the sure thing.)
Netanyahu now has a 94-seat super majority in the 120-seat Knesset, meaning he can govern with a relatively free hand until 2013.
But what does he intend to do with his new power?
The snub of Netanyahu by Likud’s right wing at the party’s convention earlier this month seems to have prompted or hastened his deal with Mofaz, who gains new political life when it looked like his party would be decimated in a September election.
The upshot is that Netanyahu is no longer dependent on any one party for his coalition’s survival.
One ramification of this is that he has given himself more wiggle room to deal with the issue of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) draft deferments, because he doesn’t need the religious parties to survive a non-confidence motion.
Another consequence is that Netanyahu’s new coalition represents a wider swath of the Israeli electorate, which will be important when deciding what to do about Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. If the time comes to order an attack on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities to prevent it from acquiring a bomb, the prime minister would be doing so from a position of strength at home.
On the peace front, some are predicting that he’ll use his super majority to snub the right wing of his party and make long-overdue brave moves for peace with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
That’s partly because his new best friend Mofaz has been proposing that Israel should push for an interim Palestinian state on 60 per cent of the West Bank, with negotiations to determine the fate of the remaining 40 per cent. The question is whether Mofaz will actually exert pressure on Netanyahu to make concessions for a peace deal, or whether, more likely, he only joined the coalition for craven political reasons.
Perhaps now that his father, Benzion Netanyahu, a renowned historian and diehard Revisionist Zionist, has passed on, Netanyahu might finally be prepared to move forward with meaningful peace talks while carrying on the distilled essence of his father’s ideas – what Israeli political commentator Yossi Klein Halevi calls Netanyahu’s true political inheritance: cautious realism.
“The war between the heirs of Labor and the heirs of Revisionism is no longer over ideology, but sensibility,” Klein Halevi writes. “Labor won the debate over partition: A strong majority of Israelis backs a two-state solution. Yet that same majority wants the Labor ideology of partition to be implemented by the Revisionist sensibility of wariness. And that is what Benzion’s son has committed himself to do. Not to preserve greater Israel at all cost, but to negotiate a safe partition, if that becomes possible. A partition without wishful thinking.”
At least one analyst argues that both Netanyahu and Abbas now face a moment of truth – Netanyahu because he has such a large, seemingly stable majority, and because Mofaz may try to push his 60 per cent plan (part of the coalition deal includes an agreement to restart talks), and Abbas because he would be foolishly tempted to reject Mofaz’s offer if it were to find its way to the table. The PA president might fear that a state on 60 per cent of the West Bank could turn into a de facto final status arrangement.
I’m not sure, however, that Netanyahu will feel more pressure to do anything, which is likely the main reason he sought a national unity government.
Since declaring his support for a two-state solution in 2009 (while heading his previous, more precarious right-wing coalition), he and Abbas have tried to outdo one another in imposing preconditions on further talks. Netanyahu may use his new coalition to play for yet more time and avoid making a deal for as long as he can.
It doesn’t help that most Israelis don’t trust Abbas, who seems to prefer going to the UN to seek recognition for a Palestinian state than negotiate with Israel. Moreover, he does himself no favours with Israelis when he denies Jewish ties to Jerusalem, compares Israel to the Crusader states of the Middle Ages and claims the Jewish Temples never existed.
However, given that everyone knows more or less how the two-state-solution story ends, I’m not sure what the point of playing for more time is.
Israel is economically and militarily powerful, and it has shown the Palestinians that despite two violent intifadahs, it’s not going anywhere. It seems to me that it can negotiate from a position of strength (notwithstanding the public relations war being waged against it around the world).
Perhaps Netanyahu should just make the best deal he can and take the Palestinian issue off the table, or at least move it to the background, so that his country can focus on the far greater threat from Iran.
In doing so, he could also secure a place in history as a peacemaker, not a slippery political operator who was ultimately a seat-warmer for the real deal.
Is this scenario likely? I doubt it, but I’m prepared to be pleasantly surprised.
Netanyahu, for better or worse, represents the cutting edge of a new generation of telegenic Israeli leaders who are constantly calculating and maneuvering for better political positioning. Mofaz, meanwhile, has bought himself time to show whether he has the royal jelly. And Defence Minister Ehud Barak – a former prime minister who bolted from the Labor party to Netanyahu’s original coalition in the hopes the move could one day help him return to his old job – appears to be the odd man out in the new arrangement.