If you weren’t careful, you might have gotten whiplash from the sharp turns and flip-flops by Benjamin Netanyahu this week. Beginning with the puzzling decision to call for new elections, then backtracking on that and forming a government of national unity with the Kadima party and its new leader Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli political landscape has begun a process of change whose final shape is not yet certain.
The reasons for Mofaz bringing Kadima into the government are fairly obvious. His party was floundering after the last elections when they won a majority but were unable to form a government. They have been increasingly irrelevant as an opposition party despite their large representation in the Knesset, and the split between Mofaz and Tzipi Livni, the former head of Kadima whom Mofaz defeated in primaries two weeks ago, showed the party’s inability to offer a viable alternative to Netanyahu. Most polls indicated that Kadima was going to lose as many as 20 of its 28 Knesset seats in new elections.
So, Mofaz comes into the government in order to establish a political future for himself, and save himself from oblivion. Kadima gets very little in exchange for ballooning Netanyahu’s coalition to an unprecedented 94 seats (out of 120). Mofaz becomes Vice Premier and Minister Without Portfolio; the party gets a central role in some key upcoming legislation and leadership of several Knesset committees. Mofaz is raising his own profile by being the “backup Prime Minister” when Bibi is abroad, and is hoping to use the next 17 or so months to build enough of a political cache to seriously contend for the Prime Minister’s office.
It’s a death knell for Kadima as a serious party, but that was happening anyway. The perception that Mofaz, who has consistently polled as winning fewer seats for Kadima in new elections than Livni would have, rolled over for Bibi will merely hasten Kadima’s demise.
The more intriguing question is what Netanyahu is doing.
Bibi initially called for new elections, apparently believing that securing four more years for his tenure before US President Barack Obama secured his own second terms was a priority, and then realized that the decision was hasty. Re-forming the coalition always means having to make new promises. Also, a Kadima-Labor-Yesh Atid campaign could paint the new coalition as even more radically right wing, which could cause political headaches for Bibi domestically and, especially, internationally. None of these factors threaten Bibi’s hold on the Prime Minister’s office, but when early elections are not really necessary, these factors start to outweigh the potential benefits.
Enter Shaul Mofaz with a way out for Bibi, and a mighty handy one at that. Netanyahu undoubtedly emerges the big winner here, having a massive majority in the Knesset, at exceedingly low cost.
What does Bibi get out of this?
Iran: The Iran issue is so prominent now that this was the first thought virtually everyone seemed to have after the surprise announcement. In truth, I think Iran was largely a non-factor here and will be little affected by it. After Israel backs away further from its war talk, which is already well underway, Mofaz will likely take credit for moderating the Bibi-Ehud Barak war machine. But his real role is to help give Bibi a back door to get out of after all the Holocaust talk and existential hand-wringing that now sounds like so much “sky is falling” chatter.
Bibi’s relationship with the Israeli military: This is a major coup for Netanyahu. The military leadership has been very unhappy with Bibi from day one, and the warmongering over Iran has seriously deteriorated this situation. The public criticisms voiced by former heads of defense and intelligence such as Yuval Diskin, Meir Dagan, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and others, were all indications of the deep discontent among Israel’s military and intelligence leadership with how Netanyahu was handling not only Iran, but the country’s defense in general. That even current leaders have spoken critically of Bibi says an awful lot. Shaul Mofaz can help heal that breach. Though Ehud Barak, like Mofaz, has a strong military background and both have been Defense Ministers and Chiefs of Staff, Barak is no longer well liked or respected among current military and intelligence leaders. Mofaz is, and will surely provide at least some help in healing the breach between the government and military. Bibi needs that as no Prime Minister, no matter how strong his coalition, can survive long in Israel if the military leadership doesn’t support him.
International relations: Bibi has every reason to believe that Mofaz and Kadima joining him will help ease some of the (certainly meager) pressure he is feeling from Washington and Europe. Until now, the far right wing character of the ruling coalition made it easier to criticize Israeli policies. This was especially so because the largest party in the Knesset was not part of the coalition. Now, that will change, and European and American leaders will have a harder time arguing that they are “not criticizing Israel, just some of the government’s policies” when so much of the Knesset will be a part of those policies. That said, Mofaz is a bit more sensible than Bibi and Barak, and may serve to moderate some of those policies and also to further marginalize Avigdor Lieberman’s voice.
Domestic politics: The opposition, a mere 26 seats in the Knesset, will certainly grow in the next elections and will likely be led by the Labor Party. Labor currently stands at a mere eight seats but has been getting 18 or 19 seats in polls conducted before these events. Some voters, disillusioned with Kadima and Mofaz, are likely to come back to Labor, so that might even go up in the next elections. Likud was also polling stronger, as many as 35 seats in some polls. The center-right Kadima is likely to wither and die, and the centrist Labor will lead an opposition with the center-left Meretz, which may gain as many as three or four seats, along with the new centrist Yesh Atid party, which is polling at around a dozen seats. None of these parties boasts a leader who is ever likely to challenge Bibi, so the opposition is weaker than ever now, and this bodes ill for Israel’s democracy, already under assault.
The Palestinians: The Palestinians are the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and no one seems to be considering them. There’s a reason for that: if the current stalemate and “relative calm” hold, Mofaz’s joining the government will make no difference. But if it doesn’t hold, and it surely cannot go on like this for too long without something drastic happening on the Palestinian side, a government of national unity in Israel will have a very wide range of options.
With all the attention on Iran, the Palestinians are an afterthought these days. But Netanyahu is well aware that the Oslo process is dead. So, as he presses on with more settlements, more outposts being legalized, and tightening the cantonization of the West Bank and the siege on Gaza, he must know that eventually there will be renewed violence. If that violence is sufficient to trigger a major Israeli response, perhaps including some sort of endgame plan that Bibi may already have in mind, a government of national unity will be much more able to pull off a game changing military action, both domestically and internationally. I don’t think this is being planned, per se, at this time. But if, as some suspect, Israel is planning to eventually annex much of Area C in the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, and leave the little bits of land to the Palestinians and let them call it a state, a national unity government would be needed to make that happen.
Indeed, Mofaz himself has proposed declaring a Palestinian state on 60% of the West Bank, with Israel depositing a “pledge” with the US that negotiations for permanent borders would be based on the 1967 lines, with agreed to modifications and swaps. Such a promise will certainly sound familiar to Palestinians, reminding them of those “temporary” settlements that were set up starting in 1967, or that separation barrier that could so easily be moved it took the IDF years to comply with an Israeli court order to move a small piece of it.
Of course, a national unity government can also act boldly to reach agreement with the Palestinians, but to call this unlikely under this government is a massive understatement.