Netanyahu has little to fear from Kadima’s desertion

On Tuesday evening, Shaul Mofaz, leader of the Israeli political party Kadima, convened his fellow parliamentarians and offered then his rationale for leaving the 94-seat Knesset majority they’d made possible in May when they joined PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition. In doing so, he has largely sealed Kadima’s fate as a political force in Israel.

According to The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov, Mofaz asserted in his defense that “there are red lines I can’t cross” and that “there’s a difference between compromising and just paying lip service.” 

Mofaz’s red lines are the military service exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Palestinians. He supports a much more expansive draft program than Netanyahu. Netanyahu prefers a much more gradual course and maintaining a greater percentage of exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men. July 31 is the deadline Israel’s High Court set for a reform of the Tal Law, which since 2002 has governed the current exemptions policy. If no compromise is reached, the IDF could begin drafting 18-year-olds in these demographic groups without having the civilian government set quotas for exemptions, and non-military alternative “national service” options that would primarily granted to Israeli Arabs). Only around 1/5 of ultra-Orthodox draft eligible males currently serve in the IDF.

The main question to ask now is not what the compromise will look like, but “when’s the next election?”. Whenever it is, it will not be a good one for Kadima.

Kadima’s eleventh-hour deal with Likud back in May postponed emergency elections originally set for September 4. Polls showed that Kadima was likely to lose close to 2/3 of its Knesset seats in the September 4 contest, while Likud would gain seats. Mofaz, in seeking to avert that disaster, broke an earlier promise to never join in a coalition with Netanyahu. Kadima, not Likud, was negotiating from a position of weakness then. 

It would constitute a Herculean feat for Kadima to now dispel the scorn the Israeli right is heaping on it. The “left’s” enthusiasm for Mofaz is not exactly a tangible quantity. The scorn felt in the country towards his party is rather aptly exemplified by an Israel Hayom political cartoon portraying Mofaz as a weather vane. Mofaz plainly failed to deliver – he says he’s quitting because there is no compromise on the draft and some of his party’s backbenchers are yelling that he gave up too easily on it.

Kadima’s withdrawal over the Tal Law is the most visible – and risible – issue that it’s stepping out on now. Ironically, on Monday, former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz stepped out on Kadima because it didn’t go as far he wanted it to on the law — Halutz wants universal conscription for all, starting at age 1, and Kadima was willing to accept a compromise for gradual enlistment over the next 4 years — which again makes one wonder as to what Kadima’s fate will be in the next election.

Mofaz’s defection was apparently triggered by Neyantahu’s dissolution of a committee that would have presented a compromise package on the draft. The Times of Israel reports:

“Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu had adopted a proposal put forward by Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud), which called for ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs to join the army or perform national service, such as serving in police or fire units, by ages 23 to 26. The motion also included incentives for those who enlist at a younger age.”

“Mofaz blasted the proposal as “disproportionate and contrary to the High Court ruling,” which stated that the burden of serving should be shared by all citizens. He also said it did not meet the principle of equality laid out by the Plesner Committee.”

A full-scale draft is the preference of many members of Kadima, and it is preference of the secular-nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu as well, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, is Netanyahu’s Foreign Minister.

Yisrael Beiteinu’s national-secular members of Knesset (KMs) have little patience for exemptions to the Palestinian Israelis or the ultra-Orthodox, or arguments from those on the Israeli left castigating the whole exercise as political theater. Kadima, at odds with the national-religious establishment on much else, found a natural ally in Yisrael Beiteinu this time since they do not support special privileges for the ultra-Orthodox or Israeli Arabs. Lieberman’s party is Likud’s main ally right now, and he opposes further Tal Law extensions in favor of a full-scale national draft – though his bill to effect this was recently voted down.

That said, it is Likud that has the most to gain from the coming deadline dance over the Tal Law, primarily because its opponents are so politically weak.

This is important to note because the law is one of the most controversial provisions of Israeli life, and one that it is easy to rally support for or against in Israeli domestic politics without having to have an uncomfortable discussion about the Occupation. As Karl Vick notes, “it leaves him [Netanyahu] weaker and more vulnerable to the passions of the factions who remain — nationalists on one hand, and religious parties on the other”.

And this is all true, but only to a certain extent. Netanyahu has to prefer the 19 votes of the national-religious bloc to Kadima’s seats because those are the people he broke bread with in 2009, and there is also the matter of the settler bloc in his own party. The dissent of this bloc’s leader, Moshe Felgin, over the Tal Law handling is much less threatening to Netanyahu than Lieberman’s is.

Kadima is setting out to make the universal draft the issue for the next election – though if that’s your only issue, why vote for the flip-flopping Kadima when you can vote for Yisrael Beiteinu, which actually has weight because of their staying in the government? Netanyahu might indeed be worried over what will happen before July 31, since he has relied so much on, perhaps sometimes without even quite realizing it, the domestic breathing room provided by his fractious partners to undertake his foreign policy program. This breathing room has helped him avoid a serious political confrontation in the Knesset over his Iran policy (this is less so with respect to the Occupation since few on any side of the political spectrum question its sustainability).

Without that breathing room, Netanyahu really does run risks going into the next elections because an issue as divisive as the Tal Law has the potential to explode Israeli society.

But it is a slim risk for Netanyahu, who is predicted to easily win the premier-ship again in 2013. His response to the current dust-up will likely compare to how he dealt with a “settlement crisis” just as his grand coalition formed. +972′s Noam Sheizaf had theorized that Likud’s incentive to get the coalition formed was to head off a serious confrontation over the legality of multiple apartments in the Beit El settlement’s Ulpana neighborhood: “By postponing the elections, the prime minister has bought himself some time to deal with the crisis,” though Sheizaf also noted that the settlers were politically weak. 

But that weakness, Sheizaf concluded, was belied by the “political theater” that the bigger players put on. A compromise on Ulpana, was, in fact, accomplished: the apartments were physically relocated and then the government promised to undertake massively expanded construction, as it so often does when an evacuation occurs. An incident that could have prompted a wider debate of the Occupation was headed off by last-minute compromises. Gone was any talk about the peace process that some hoped Mofaz would re-introduce.

By any measure, Netanyahu won the debate - such as it was - over Ulpana, and he did so not by using Kadima’s Knesset votes. They simply sat in his tent as his partisans worked out a solution with the furthest-right whose expansionism he sympathies with. How that episode played out is indicative of Netanyahu’s strength as a politician. Give him a cubic centimeter of wiggle room in committee, and he will carve out a square mile of new apartments beyond the Green Line because there is really no strong, organized constituency behind Kadima to match Likud’s appeal.

Even as Lieberman thunders on about the universal draft, the Foreign Minister is surely mindful that had those September 4 elections been held, Likud, not his party, stood to gain the most. And for what it’s worth given Mofaz’s recent performance, Lieberman did announce he would not leave the coalition. It is much easier for Lieberman and Netanyahu to stay together than it is for either man to go over to the smaller national-religious parties like Shas or seek accommodation with the Labor Party. 

Harkov also reported that 3 members of Kadima formally voted to remain in the coalition, and that seven more might prefer to jump ship. Not all that many, but bear in mind that Kadima was expected to hold onto only 10, perhaps 12 seats in the September 4 election, out of the 28 it held in May when it entered the coalition.

Netanyahu may indeed be scared of the ultra-Orthodox, but he’s not afraid of Kadima. A few defections on, and who at all will be afraid of Shaul Mofaz in the next general election?

About Paul Mutter

Paul Mutter is a contributor to Mondoweiss, Foreign Policy in Focus and the Arabist.
Posted in Iran, Israel/Palestine, Israeli Government, Middle East, Occupation, Settlers/Colonists

{ 5 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. seafoid says:

    But it is a slim risk for Netanyahu, who is predicted to easily win the presidency again in 2013

    He is prime minister

  2. Krauss says:

    Good overall analysis but I disagree with Noam on a few points.

    He claims the settlers are weak, and that’s probably true if you think of the hardliners in that community. But being inside Israel for so long has in some sense blinded him slightly to the fact that there are settlers – and then there are settlers.

    The latter category is the hilltop youth variety. The former are sympathizers, who often try to put in deed what they preach but not always.

    One example: the education minister, Gideon Saar. He personally intervened and lobbied on behalf of Ariel University to become nationally recognized. These actions matter, because they cement the occupation and deepens the institutional links as the difference between Israel within the green line and outside of it weakens by the day.

    Now that Ariel University is seen as legitimate as, say, Tel Aviv University, despite that it cuts Ariel(one of the largest settlements) cuts the West Bank almost perfectly in half, what stops Ariel as a whole, as a town, from being seen as no different from Tel Aviv or Haifa instead of a large settlement?

    Therefore, the extremist settlers may be weak but the larger pro-settler block is exceptionally strong. In fact, Israel’s own prime minister is in the latter, more loosely defined camp who nonetheless fight ferociously on behalf of keeping the settlements growing.

    And besides, the ‘extremist’ settlers are mostly just marked by their unwillingness to have patience and compromise to reach their goal. The end goal of the Gideon Saar’s of the world is not much different, except that he, Bibi and the rest have much more patience and finesse. However, the means may be different, but the aims are not.

    That Noam misses this is forgiveable and understandable. After all, it helps your sanity to think only of the most loudest settlers as the ‘settler bloc’. Thinking of it in a more nuanced way give a clearer view of just how cemented the Occupation has become and that trying to dismantle it would most likely result in a civil war(which would never be fought because the true anti-settlement forces are incredibly weak and isolated).

  3. radii says:

    they’re just moving the deck chairs on the Titanic anyhow

  4. seafoid says:

    “Gone was any talk about the peace process that some hoped Mofaz would re-introduce.”

    Who? Does anyone honestly buy this crap ? Mofaz was the head of the IDF. A sociopath who never did anything for peace. His job was death. And he is supposed to come over all fluffy when he wears a suit ?

    The Zionist machine is unstoppable. The Palestine papers showed that total control over Erez Israel has been the plan for over 40 years. Their whole society and economy is built around this goal.

    Mofaz, Bibi, Lieberman, Zippy, Barak- they are all the same. OK, maybe Lieberman has a lower IQ. But they are all sociopaths. Interchangeable.

    Israel will not end the occupation. This is Jewish destiny. All that mystical stuff is going to come to a head. G-d works in mysterious ways. Perhaps it is the BIG test before Moshiach comes again. But it looks like a fail from here.

  5. RE: “there is also the matter of the settler bloc in his own party. The dissent of this bloc’s leader, Moshe Felgin, over the Tal Law handling is much less threatening to Netanyahu than Lieberman’s is.” ~ Paul Mutter

    MY COMMENT: I can certainly understand why the proto-fascist Moshe Fe(i)lgin is less threatening to Netanyahu. “Birds of a feather. . .”

    SEE: “Feiglin New Rightist Power Behind Likud Throne”, by Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam, 12/27/08

    [EXCERPTS] Gershom Gorenberg has written a stunner of a political appraisal of the role Moshe Feiglin and his far-right allies will play in Likud before and especially after the next national election. Feiglin is an Orthodox extremist settler leader who toiled in the political trenches of far-right splinter parties until he cottoned on to an idea David Duke had some time ago. Instead of laboring in political obscurity, take over the major party nearest to your ideology. In this case it was Likud.
    In the last leadership primary, Feiglin (remember again that his views are somewhat akin to Duke’s in an Israeli context) garnered 25% of the vote to embarrass Netanyahu deeply. . .
    . . . Here are some of the more shocking beliefs that Feiglin holds:
    On the Jewish Leadership website, [he] proposes principles for a constitution for Israel. It would include a high rabbinic court, chosen only by clergy, that would overturn any legislation it saw as contradicting Jewish religious law. A newly established senate, with a guaranteed Jewish majority of over 80 percent, would have to consult the rabbinic court on all national issues. Israel would lay claim not only to the West Bank and Gaza, but also to all of Jordan.
    …He proposes…holding a ceremony at every army base in which all non-lethal weaponry would be destroyed. Faced with Palestinian demonstrators, soldiers could only shoot to kill…Another Feiglin tract contrasts parliamentary democracy with an “authentic Jewish regime” that would express the “organic unity of the Nation of Israel.” Put simply, Feiglin’s ideology is the meeting point of fundamentalism and fascism.

    In support of the author’s characterization in the last sentence of this passage, consider this passage from the Wikipedia article on Feiglin:

    In a 1995 interview with the Haaretz daily, in which he spoke disparagingly of Hitler and Arabs, Feiglin called Hitler “an unparalleled military genius.” Feiglin also said “Hitler savoured good music. He would paint. This was no bunch of thugs. They merely used thugs and homosexuals,” Feiglin was quoted as saying at the time. “Nazism promoted Germany from a low to a fantastic physical and ideological status. The ragged, trashy youth body turned into a neat and orderly part of society and Germany received an exemplary regime, a proper justice system and public order,” he said. Yediot Aharonot daily said Feiglin “was not ashamed of considering Hitler a genius.”

    Gorenberg concludes his essay with this warning about the false ‘branding’ of Likud under Netanyahu’s leadership:

    The campaign packaging for the Likud will show Netanyahu’s face. In his modulated MBA voice, he’ll try to sell the Likud to voters as a pragmatic conservative party, willing to make peace if only the Palestinians agree to its conditions. Inside the package, however, is a party in thrall to a lean and hungry man offering extremist leadership for Israel.

    SOURCE – link to richardsilverstein.com