Israel’s (non)election bombshell – unity government

Netanyahu and Mofaz

PM Binyamin Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz

In utterly astonishing news today, we awoke to the news that the general elections have been called off and a unity government has been formed instead.

In a dramatic move, the Likud and Kadima parties agreed on a unity government early Tuesday, averting the prospect of early elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz finalized the surprising unity agreement hours before the Knesset was expected to approve its own dissolution and set September 4th as the date of the next elections.

PM Netanyahu announced that Kadima’s Mofaz will be appointed deputy PM and minister without portfolio, while also being included in Israel’s security cabinet. Mofaz told Kadima members the party will likely get more portfolios later on, apparently in 2013. As part of the deal, Kadima will also chair the Knesset’s Economics Committee.

Senior government officials said they had no early knowledge of the plan to form a unity government. Key coalition figures Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Eli Yishai (Shas) endorsed the deal, Netanyahu said.

“I didn’t want to go to elections,” Netanyahu said. “But having detected rifts I decided to go ahead.”

Netanyahu phoned President Shimon Peres, who is currently visiting Canada, and informed him of the developments. Peres expressed his support for the move and congratulated the prime minister.

Both Netanyahu and Mofaz convened their respective factions, which approved the unity deal. The PM informed Likud Knesset members that as part of the new coalition agreement, a new bill that would regularize the issue of haredi enlistment into the IDF will be tabled by the end of June. The Kadima-Likud deal also calls for changes in Israel’s government system and approval of the next state budget.

Following Tuesday’s drama, the next elections will likely be held, as planned, in October 2013.

Senior Likud officials estimated that Netanyahu decided to lead the unity move after realizing the extent of public support for changing the law on haredi enlistment into the IDF. Meanwhile, Mofaz endorsed the deal after seeing Kadima plummeting in the polls and heading for a disastrous showing in the September elections, which have now been averted.

Both leaders were also interested in undermining the chances of rookie politician Yair Lapid, who was set to win more than 10 Knesset seats in the elections according to the polls.

The move was orchestrated by Netanyahu’s former bureau chief Natan Eshel and Mofaz’s aide Lior Horev.

Interestingly, I heard an interview on the radio yesterday with a government official (I didn’t hear his name) who was telling a skeptical broadcaster that it wasn’t a done deal that the Knesset would be dissolved and new elections called. I sided with the broadcaster – but I was wrong.

Ynet has several interesting items about the new unity government and its implications:

In “Shaul Mofaz’s political zigzag” they write:

Mofaz has repeatedly slammed Netanyahu in the past few months going as far as denouncing him as a liar.

Just three months ago, and prior to winning the Kadima primaries, Mofaz had declared on his Facebook page that he will not join Netanyahu’s government under any circumstance.

Less than two months earlier, the MK had called the prime minister a liar during a meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Ordering to adjourn the meeting, Mofaz claimed that Netanyahu’s staff members had distorted statements he made during the meeting.

The Times of Israel also questions Mofaz’s flip-flopping:

Mofaz clearly thirsts for political power. As vice prime minister, he will fill in for Netanyahu and sit in all important ministerial committees. He could never understand why Livni passed twice on the opportunity to take government responsibility. And when he won the helm of Kadima earlier this year and then realized that the party could emerge too weak to be interesting to Netanyahu, he expediently joined forces with the man he had attacked just days earlier.

The Kadima members chose to either forget or ignore his flexibility when they made him head of their party. But they will ask him — and he will ask himself — if Tuesday’s deal is worthwhile in the medium-term.

Come election time, will voters choose a man who seems prepared to go to very great lengths just to be in the government?

I hope this does not bode ill for the new union.

In Ynet’s “Unity deal’s winners and losers” there are no real surprises for those who follow Israeli politics. The winners:

Benjamin Netanyahu – got another year and a half or so as prime minister, with the broadest coalition possible. He now has the opportunity to address several sensitive issues.

Shaul Mofaz and Kadima – spared a possible political demise. The future is foggy, but for the time being Shaul Mofaz has time to build his image.

Ehud Barak – planned to run with the Independence party, which barely reached the minimal threshold for entering the Knesset. Now he shall remain in the post of defense minister and can breathe a sigh of relief.

Eli Yishai and Shas – As long a Rabbi Ovadia Yosef rules the party, Yishai gains, because he did not really want elections, and for the time being Aryeh Deri will be left out. Should it quit the government later because of the Tal Law, Shas would be able to tell its voters that it fought against it.

Avigdor Lieberman – all along, he claimed that he wanted to see the government run its course. He also wanted to be credited for the new Tal Law. Now, his part in the government will decline, and his ability to threaten to topple the government will also decline, significantly. His contribution to the Tal Law will be minimized, as the legislation would not have passed without Kadima. As to the decision on his indictment, he may gain: Should an indictment be served, he will have to quit his ministerial post. A deal may be worked out with him that will force him to take a time-out until the next elections. Had an indictment been served right before the elections, he may have had to stay out of politics for four years.

The losers:

Shelly Yachimovich and Labor – the polls predicted close to 20 Knesset seats for Labor. Yachimovich was riding the social protest wave, and now will be hung out to dry in an armored Audi with body guards, in her role as opposition chairwoman with a mere eight Knesset seats.

Yair Lapid – a true letdown for the man who made the great buzz, who is now en route to a lengthy dry spell and possible erosion. Should the Tal Law be passed, he will have nothing to offer on this front.

Tzipi Livni – quit Kadima, and now is left out of the game. She could have been a part of the government had she wanted to. On the other hand, she can wait for her opportunity and could make a comeback.

Of course it’s much too early to write off the losers – an election is still forthcoming, although not as early as everyone thought. Depending on how the new unity government performs, Labour led by Yachimovitch might still do very well in the next elections. As for Yair Lapid, he’s such a new boy on the block that anything is possible by the next elections.

Speaking of Labour, the left of course slammed the unity deal since they were hoping to be riding high on a wave of public dissatisfaction with the government’s economic and social performance.

The Jerusalem Post points out that the new government may now be able to pass a revised Tal Law – the law that has exempted haredim from the military draft, and which was deemed unconstitutional by the High Court.

The Times of Israel wonders how Netanyahu will use the time he has bought with this tactical victory.

Many pundits felt Netanyahu and Livni did the Israeli electorate a disservice in not building a unity government after the 2009 elections. That coalition might have introduced electoral reform, tackled the issue of social inequality, drawn up territorial red lines for dealing with the Palestinians, and more widely represented Israelis on major issues such as facing the challenge of Iran. Now, more than three years later, some of those opportunities may still be there.

Alternatively, the Netanyahu-Mofaz partnership could come to be recognized as a cynical exercise in narrow political expediency — as MK Horowitz immediately branded it — one that made the prime minister’s life a little easier, staved off the collapse of a party that had outlived its purpose, and maintained a damaging leadership paralysis for an Israel confronted by a worrying array of threats.

Netanyahu never really wanted early elections. Now that he’s avoided them, how is he going to use the time?

Good question.  On the face of it, a unity government is a good thing and I support it.  But I just hope it does not come back to bite us in the you-know-where.

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5 Responses to Israel’s (non)election bombshell – unity government

  1. DavidinPT says:

    I think that this move is the clearest sign yet that Israel is moving on to a war footing to deal very soon with Iran. The international community is now putting Iran on the back burner: France, now that Hollande has been elected, will be busy internally with taking over power and attempting to implement his economic policies. Germany is busy dealing with regional elections that are going against Merkel and with holding Europe together after the Greek election results and Holland’s (the country, not the French president) refusal to abide by Germany’s spending diktat. And Obama has made clear that he doesn’t want any war talk or action till after the November elections (if ever). So Netanyahy has maybe decided to go it alone and pre-empt a nuclear weaponized Iran. Doing so with Kadima in the coalition achieves three dramatic changes. It virtually silences internal opposition, it provides Bibi with a handy security-man counterweight to Barak (via Mofaz) and should there be a nasty American reaction to Israeli military action, then it will be directed across the board at all the major Israeli political parties responsible for the decision, and not only against the so-called right wing. Thus it would have no electoral consequences against the Likud, Israel Beteinu et al. Time to batten down the hatches methinks.

    • anneinpt says:

      Good comment, and David Weinberg in Yisrael Hayom agrees with you.

      This brings us to Iran, which is the one issue on which far-reaching and momentous decisions are imminent. Netanyahu’s government and inner cabinet now includes three former IDF chiefs-of-staff (Barak, Mofaz and Moshe Ya’alon), something which in itself is a form of deterrence. This ought to give pause to the Iranians and the Obama administration, and to stiffen the backs of the P5+1 negotiators. It is an important counter-weight to the nasty insinuations of “irresponsibility and messianism” in government decision-making on Iran made by former intelligence chiefs Dagan and Diskin.
      As my wife left the house this morning to go shopping, I suggested to her that it was time to stock up on batteries and bottled water.

  2. Andrea says:

    It is difficult for us foreigner to understand what is going on with domestic affairs of Israel ( correction : which country has intelligible internal affairs ? Your country is not a black sheep of course ). Yet some Israeli blogs reported that Great Coalition is first stage in confrontation with Iran. I do not know but I feel this is too easy or simple. Iran is first item on agenda but maybe Bibi’s move is prelude to a wider change in foreign politics – fighting Iran is not only Israel or Western concern after all. There are other countries on the opposte bank of Persian Gulf extremely concerned of Iran threaty – they are enemy of Israel of course but, who knows, enemy of the enemy could be useful than friends sometimes. I hope for a big change in the future and maybe is time for Israel to display a proper foreign policy( taking for good Kissinger’s words she had only domestic policy so far – exageration but not completely false )

    • anneinpt says:

      It’s not only difficult for foreigners to understand Israeli politics, Andrea. It’s difficult for us Israelis too! I’m sure even the politicians themselves sometimes don’t understand what’s going on. :-).

      The general opinion in Israel is not so far from your estimate – that although Iran is very near the top of the agenda, domestic politics are also playing a big part. There is the budget coming up, the Tal law about recruiting the ultra-Orthodox into the army, social unrest because of the economy etc.

      Re Israel’s enemies’ enemies, that is certainly true too – that the Arab and Gulf states are much more scared of Iran than Israel is, and would be very happy for Israel to do their dirty work (and then they can condemn Israel at the UN as usual).

      As for Israel having a proper foreign policy – why do you think her foreign policy is not proper? It’s not easy for Israel, with her Best Friends turning overnight into her greatest enemies, e.g. Turkey, and vice versa (e.g. Greece and Cyprus). Europe can never make up its mind about Israel so it is mutual. America too blows hot and cold, although the relationship is essentially very strong.

      If you were talking about the Palestinians – Israel has a definite policy: The Palestinians must accept Israel as the Jewish national homeland, and that any agreement will be final, i.e. no re-opening or cancelling the treaty when they get new leaders (e.g. Egypt). So far the Palestinians have not agreed to any of these very basic conditions, so things are stuck.

  3. Pingback: That didn’t last long – Kadima leaves unity government | Anne's Opinions

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