Last week, Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu pulled off either the most despicable or brilliant political manoeuvre in the nation’s 64 year history. A day after having called for new elections that many expected him to win, Bibi, as he is affectionately called, did a U-turn and formed a new coalition with the Centrist Kadima party. It became a media sensation, causing wonderment, shock and anger while raising plenty of questions. Why did the Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz become bed fellows with the man (the “liar”) he vowed to oppose in the upcoming elections? Why did Bibi and Likud change their stance on new elections a day after the announcement? Moreover, what does this deal mean for Israel? Iran? The Peace process?
Historic Bane or Boon?
Despite Israel’s familiarity with coalitions – being part and parcel of its proportional representation model – the current arrangement is one of the state’s largest coalitions with 94 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset. This broad coalition helps reduces the influence of far-right groups who regularly play ‘king maker’ to mainstream parties trying to form a viable government. With Kadima in the fold, Netanyahu is not as reliant on the religious right to keep him in power. In fact, both Mofaz and Netanyahu have talked about changing Israel’s current political system to ensure extreme elements can’t hold ruling coalitions hostage. Changing Israel’s democratic, but at times impractical, proportional representation system has been on the cards for some years now. It has played a role in bringing down coalitions willing to compromise on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stifled the sort of risk taking many assume will be required to make any real progress.
However, not everyone in Israel is overjoyed, particularly those on the left (on the outside and of the political spectrum). Some in the Labour Party have called the agreement a new low for politics – a profession already notorious for being vertically challenged. Even within Kadima, there are have been cries of treason from supporters of former leader Tzipi Livni. Others have called on Mofaz to ensure the peace process get’s on the government’s agenda to salvage the party’s pride. While analyst fear a split in the party, even those in favour of the coalition hope to move Likud more to the center on the Palestinian question; to what extent that is realistic is a different question altogether.
So, why did Mofaz do it? Many are citing his political survival. As many expected Netanyahu and Likud to retain their position in a future poll, reports also showed a dramatic decline for Kadima. Some indicated that the party could have lost half of their current seats in the Knesset and become an irrelevant political force. Therefore, by joining Likud, Mofaz has ensured his survival and that of the party former PM Ariel Sharon brought out of Likud in 2005.
Precedence for War or Peace?
Given the significance of the agreement, many articles have sort to interpret the new deal through Israel’s political history. One of noted comparisons is the national unity government formed in 1967 between PM Levi Eshkol and Moshe Dayan prior to the Six Day War. Many observers suggest that Netanyahu’s coalition is aimed at getting a broader consensus to attack Iran. In fact, attacking Iran was seemingly put back on the table as soon as the deal was struck, which is a surprising switch following days of anti-war protestations from former and current ministers, military personnel and intelligence officers. With a broad coalition, it is argued that Netanyahu can gain enough public support to launch a preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear program. Still, despite his constant tirades against Iran, it is important to note that Netanyahu has not yet started a major war unlike his centrist predecessors.
Pundits have taken the discussion on Iran beyond domestic politics and have explored the coalition’s impact on Lebanon and the greater region. Just last week, a senior officer in Israel’s Northern Command fired a warning shot at Hezbollah, the frontline of Iran’s offensive capabilities, saying any retaliation by the group could result in massive destruction inside Lebanon. Not be outdone, Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah shot back, boasting of the group’s ability to strike any target in Israel – a building for a building.
But what of Mofaz? For years, the Iranian born, former IDF Chief of Staff has been an opponent of military action against Iran. As with the vow to fight against Netanyahu in the upcoming elections, would Mofaz U-turn on his stance on Iran? That is what most commentators are expecting from the habitual flip-flopper. Still, his stance on Iran has been unambiguous and stood the test of time; perhaps he deserves a little more credit. Could he possibly moderate the Prime Minister’s intentions and bring balance?
The second comparison involves the 1984 national unity government under the so-called “prime minister’s forum,” a coalition formed by three former Prime ministers (Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres) that involved rotating roles periodically. It was under this government that the Peace Initiative of 1989 was put forward that played a part in the peace process of the early 1990s.
The current coalition does offer Netanyahu the opportunity, if he is willing, to come to viable agreement with the Palestinians. This is particularly due to the freedom afforded by Kadima, making Bibi less susceptible to religious groups within his coalition. Kadima itself was created in 2005 by Sharon to circumvent the extreme right-wing elements within Likud. Kadima has offered itself as a pro-peace alternative to Labour and oversaw the Gaza disengagement plan. Under PM Ehud Olmert, the party made a peace proposal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas surrendering over 90% of the West Bank.
With Kadima’s criticism of Netanyahu for the lack of progress in the peace front, could they use the coalition to create history? It would be out of character for Netanyahu, who many believe has no interest in compromising with the Palestinians. However, Netanyahu’s sees himself as man of destiny. He believes that his position today as Israel’s leader is not circumstantial. Is his destiny to destroy the Iranian threat and safeguard the Jewish people from a second Holocaust? Or is it to create an independent Palestinian state and secure Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state? With a shiny new coalition behind him, both paths lay open before him.