If you say you saw it coming, you’re probably lying. It’s not only that the deal to dissolve the 18th Knesset and hold elections on Sept. 4 was seemingly set in stone. It’s that the logic was so compelling: In holding early elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu was avoiding a bruising fight over the expiring, unconstitutional Tal Law with both Yisrael Beiteinu and the religious parties in his coalition; was getting re-elected before a potential recession in the Eurozone; was securing a new mandate in advance of, potentially, President Obama’s re-election and the necessity of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities; and above all, with huge poll numbers, an official opposition in freefall, and only four months to campaign, all but ensuring himself five additional years leading the government.
But meeting late last night/early this morning, Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, the newly elected head of Kadima—in this Knesset the largest party, likely not even close to the largest one after the next election—struck a deal, creating a national unity coalition comprising a stunning 96 of 120 Knesset seats (Likud and Kadima together hold 56 by themselves). Mofaz is nominally in charge of the peace process; the parties also promised a new conscription law and electoral reform, which you can bet will be something friendly to Bibi.
And so now we can talk about what Netanyahu has accomplished instead. He has all but destroyed Kadima, which was created only several years ago as a Likud breakaway; he has potentially neutered upstart Yair Lapid, whose celebrity candidacy now has to go through more than a year of vetting and fatigue; he has kept hugely unpopular but, to him (particularly on Iran) crucial, Defense Minister Barak around; he has lessened the influence of Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, and the rest of the nuts he threw his lot in with, who now find their power diluted, and ensured that a fair, more centrist law governing conscription emerges.
I’m pretty sure this whole maneuver is something liberal American Jews should be optimistic, or at least happy, about. It could lead to real reforms and real progress on peace; and if it doesn’t, Netanyahu will be more accountable than ever.
In fact, the biggest victor might be secular Israel and those who root for it. “The most important and likely arena for change is the domestic front,” the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s David Makovsky told Tablet Magazine this morning. “There finally will now be a majority of secular parties, and that will minimize Netanyahu’s reliance on the ultra-Orthodox.” He added, in reference to the Tal Law, “This gives them the ability to create a new law to enhance the prospect that the ultra-Orthodox will do some national service. What is to be seen is if Likud, Kadima, and Yisrael Beiteinu are able to unite on things even more far-reaching such as the electoral law that gives disproportionate influence to small, religious parties.”
“Unity governments are popular domestically,” Makovsky added, “and create a more moderate image for international and American Jews.” As Amir Mizroch put it, “Foreign news organizations can no longer call his government a ‘narrow right-wing coalition government.’ ” If he were able to change the fundamental structure of government formation, which currently grants smaller parties disproportionate representation (and is thereby a boon to the ultra-religious), that would certainly be a major accomplishment.
The new coalition also means Netanyahu can’t implicitly blame his old coalition for his unwillingness to make concessions on the peace process (I haven’t seen anyone else say it, so I’ll go ahead: Is it possible this deal and Benzion Netanyahu’s death aren’t completely unconnected?). “It creates a new, interesting window for the first six months of 2013,” argued Makovsky, “where before Israel goes into election mode you’d have to make a move on the Palestinian issue in a way he hasn’t been able to do over the past three years.” He continued: “Israel will now have a broader-based government, and this will be good news for the U.S. and American Jews. It’s true sometimes unity governments are recipes for paralysis, but at the same time given that Netanyahu has had to look over his right shoulder over the last three years, it will facilitate the adoption of policies that were nowhere near as likely when he was completely dependent on Lieberman and the religious parties.”
And, boy, Netanyahu. What a move: “He is the number one politician, no doubt—by a mile,” writes Yossi Verter. “The new Netanyahu government is made of one hundred tons of solid concrete.”
Meanwhile, here is Mofaz, in March, pledging not join Netanyahu’s government.
But as blogger Michael Koplow notes, Mofaz was actually acting at the peak of his power—at the very last possible moment when he would lead the largest party in the Knesset. There are worse ways for desperate men to act, and worse times for them to act.
On Iran, Jeff Goldberg articulated what were my original thoughts upon hearing of the deal, which is that Netanyahu is finally putting together the national coalition he really should have had all along were he serious about confronting Iran head-on. “It keeps the Iran issue on the front burner, ensures that Netanyahu is not distracted by his own re-election,” said Makovsky. “It doesn’t guarantee an Israeli strike on Iran—indeed, Mofaz is known as someone not favoring a strike.” But, he added, “The talks are the biggest question, and you have the EU cutoff of oil, so nothing’s going to happen immediately.” More to the point, the substantial domestic benefits that accrue to Netanyahu from this deal provide sufficient justification—for us to bring Iran into the calculations isn’t necessary. (Haaretz‘s Amir Oren disagrees, thinking the deal means precisely that a strike is imminent.)
The left was enraged last night, which should tell you something. And, I mean, so much for Mofaz’s leftist rhetoric, his self-stated desire to lead this summer’s reprise of the #j14 housing protests. You can’t well protest the government when you’re the deputy prime minister.
J.J. Goldberg argues that this is good for Mofaz, giving him another year to prevent Kadima from total collapse. True; at the same time, Mofaz has also confirmed the most stinging criticism of Kadima: that it is not different enough from the Likud.
Could it spell good news for Shelly Yachimovich’s Labor Party, already seen as resurgent and likely to be the second-most-popular party after the elections? She’s now the leader of the opposition, which may be especially helpful should tens of thousands flood Rothschild Boulevard again this summer.
On the other hand, she’ll now be counting on tent protests next summer to give her momentum, not in a couple months. And such a wide coalition may have the unavoidable effect of, for most intents and purposes, co-opting her, too.
For one, she didn’t seem too pleased. “This is an alliance of cowards and the most ridiculous zigzag in Israel’s political history,” Yachimovich said early this morning.
“For her, this was a setback,” agreed Makovsky. “She was about to reap a lot of the Kadima voters, and I think she’ll probably vote with the government if they try to do something on limiting the ultra-Orthodox. In a political sense, I think she’s the loser in this story.
“But,” he added, “having a less right-wing government is not bad for Labor voters, just the Labor Party.”
Leader of Israel Centrist Party Kadima Agrees to Join Netanyahu’s Coalition [NYT]
Left Slams ‘Dirty Unity Deal’ [Times of Israel]
Forget That No-October-Surprise-Iran-Attack Business I Was Talking About Before [Atlantic Goldblog]
Bibi-Kadima Unity Deal Saves the Peace Camp [Forward Thinking]
Earlier: How Israeli Elections Affect an Attack on Iran
Eye on Unity and U.S., Bibi Calls for Early Vote
Netanyahu’s Influential Father Benzion Dies
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.