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It’s Good to be the King: Netanyahu scraps elections, buys off opposition and cements power with new unity gov’t

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Bibi may just be the most politically-insulated Prime Minister in Israeli history: Haaretz calls him the “king of Israeli politics.”

The opposition party Kadima, which has the largest number of Knesset seats of any single Israeli political party, will join in a national unity government with second-seated Likud and its main partner, third-seated  Yisrael Beiteinu. This creates a majority since among themselves these 3 main will control 70 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, and including smaller Likud coalition partners, this bloc could be up to 94 votes strong – meaning they could easy institute new Basic Laws if they chose to do so. 

Earlier Likud-driven plans to move up Israel’s 2013 elections to September 4, 2012 that had been opposed by Kadima have now been “frozen,” according to Haaretz, which had actually reported yesterday that a parliamentary committee voted 12-1 in favoring of dissolving this Knesset to hold elections in September. The decision to suspend the elections apparently came overnight during inter-party talks between Kadima and Likud after that particular bill was set to go on to a further vote.

It was Likud that called for the elections, and Likud is now apparently taking the initiative to undo them, though some members of Likud deny this and lay the initiative at Mofaz’s feet – such members, it seems, hoped to trounce Kadima this fall. Is it simple politicking (the settler parties, religious and non-religious, the latter including Foreign Minister Lieberman’s own Yisrael Beiteinu, that find themselves at odds with Bibi are now suddenly less important), a move to revoke special exemptions for Haredim, settlement expansion, insurance against Obama 2012, or a means of putting Israel further on a war footing with Iran? 

All of the above all possible – and as such, Bibi wins in 2012.

With Likud, the immediate effort is all about taking advantage of a beaten opposition; now only Labor and the smaller parties – Palestinian citizens of Israel, far-left and ultrareligious – remain, a most fractious and heavily outnumbered coalition. Bibi
 may just be the most politically-insulated Prime Minister in Israeli history at this moment: “king of Israeli politics,” Haaretz just called him, grudgingly that he is, after all, “Israel’s number one politician, no doubt – by a mile.”

And for Kadima, it is about surviving to the next election. The move represents a significant departure in Kadima’s rhetoric, to say the least.  At the end of March, following Tzipi Livni’s loss to Shaul Mofaz, the new head of the party told Haaretz he’d never join a government with Likud (h/t Max Blumenthal):

Yossi Veter: Would you consider joining a government should that situation arise?

Shaul Mofaz: No, Kadima under my leadership will remain in the opposition. The current government represents all that is wrong with Israel, I believe. Why should we join it? We will be a responsible opposition. Anything Netanyahu does for the benefit of Israel’s future will find our support. I want to restore an ethic of nonpartisan patriotism to Israel. I want to represent something new, like we had in the past.”

But Kadima, born out of a schism within Likud in 2005, has few options otherwise if it wants to hold onto the seats it won in 2009. Elizabeth Tsurkov, from +972, and Barak Ravid of Haaretz:

And Gregg Carlstrom at Al Jazeera:

Likud has found a way to have its cake – humbling Kadima – and eat it too with this deal because now, that cake is Kadima. One wonders what resurrected legislation from 2010 and 2011 on loyalty oaths, BDS, administrative detention, NGO funding, settlement subsidies or judicial appointments to the High Court will make a comeback.  What foreign observers are most concerned about, of course, is not Kadima’s electoral woes, or how this all means the national service exemption “Tal Law” will be amended or annulled (a measure both Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu back), but what this unity government portends for a possible conflict with Iran. Barbara Slavin of Al-Montior asks:

At the moment, we know Mofaz has been promised two explicit, and one implicit, bargains. Mofaz will become a deputy prime minister in the new government, but will be a “minister without portfolio” “in charge of the process with the Palestinians.” These offices are his explicit rewards. His implicit reward, as noted above, is getting to avoid a general election for at least one more year that his party was likely to suffer in. 

Finally, for Likud there is a big immediate benefit regarding the settlements, suggests Noam Shezaif (though he notes this might only be a temporary victory for Bibi):

“The final push for the new agreement was probably yesterday’s High Court ruling on the evacuation of the Ulpana neighborhood in the settlement of Beit El, built on private Palestinian land. With elections around the corner, this would have become for Netanyahu a public showdown with either the settlers or with the court – and possibly both. By postponing the elections, the prime minister has bought himself some time to deal with the crisis.”

As for the foreign front, I think that Bibi has decided to hedge his bets for now on Iran by offering the bruised Kadima a way forward to survive another year in a way that insulates him from American pressure and possible domestic confrontations over his focus on Iran. Yousef Munayyer put it succinctly:

Now Netanyahu won’t have to tone down his rhetoric on Iran, which he has used to successfully dodge the question on settlements as well as (reducing) sanctions and criticizing P5+1 diplomacy. Or, perhaps far, far more importantly for his fellow Likudniks’ purposes, concern himself with any further weak Western protests over West Bank settlement expansion. At the risk of beating a dead horse - this coalition formation shows we can also say goodbye to any foreseeable future negotiations with Ramallah. 

On the Obama angle, Maariv’s Ben Caspit reported earlier this week, when elections were still on, that Netanyahu had based his call for early election off of an AIPAC consensus that Obama would win reelection in 2012 (and thus, feel capable of standing up to the Prime Minister). He hardly needed AIPAC to tell him the President’s ahead in the polls, but Caspit’s effort to portrait Bibi’s mindset is illuminating:

“The surprising announcement of early primaries in Likud by the party leadership fell out of the blue, [and] came three days after a quiet meeting held with AIPAC officials, who after conducting a review of U.S. polling data, advised Netanyahu that Obama would be the next president. Bibi knows he cannot campaign for reelection himself with Obama in office for a second term. This is a dangerous gamble. [But] there is great mistrust between the American President and the Israeli Prime Minister, and Netanyahu may try to do to Obama what he did during Clinton’s first term, and Obama [may try to do] to Yitzhak Shamir what George H. W. Bush did in 1992.”

When referring to Clinton, the author means Netanyahu’s efforts to handicap the Oslo Accords. With Shamir, he means to say that Bibi seeks to avoid any chance of there being repeat of the “one lonely little guy” speech Bush gave when he refused to cave in to Shamir on delinking loan guarantees from a halt to settlement expansion. Netanyahu would rather not fight that fight and give his opponents at home openings against him, even though he’s almost certainly win such a fight both at home and abroad. As such, it may be that these comparisons (severely) overestimates Obama’s will to criticize the Israeli government and (slightly) overdoes Bibi’s sense of insecurity since Congress will simply not allow such scenarios to come into being. 

This said, the Prime Minister would rather not have to fight such a fight when the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” gives him so much room to maneuver in the region, no matter how much he dislikes Obama. So he is playing it safe; no elections to risk losing a seat in the Knesset or having to face an irate White House. If he’s concluded Obama will win, he intends to set the tone for the President’s final term by building his coalition ahead of the actual Romney-Obama faceoff. He puts himself above the fray, and greater unity at home will translate into greater assertiveness abroad. It keeps the rhetoric red hot. 

So, then, here is the $64,000, deal-or-no deal question: where does this leave newcomer Mofaz in Bibi’s kitchen cabinet? Are the scales tipped in favor of war with Mofaz’s addition to the coalition? 

Not for now, at least. Mofaz opposes an attack on Iran as of this writing. And it is not clear what Mofaz’s complicity, if it were to come, would achieve for the most gung-ho boosters of an attack. The most outspoken opponents have, in any case, mainly been former national security officials, and in a way, Bibi has even preempted them with this unity government (not that some kind of reaching across the aisle seemed to be in the cards; most who’ve worn the uniform have kept quiet) – though what this means in practice has yet to be tested with respect to Iran. Again, the kitchen cabinet – this “Octet“ - is reportedly still divided over an attack. It’s tempting to see a possible reorganization of the “Octet” as a prelude to a 2012 war with Iran because it ensures Barak stays on as Defense Minister and, as Larry Derfner notes, Bibi has “cleared his calendar,” and Barak earlier said this month the government had to separate Iran from “the elections” and it has done just that. At the same time, further settlement building, the revival of undemocratic legislation, even Cast Lead II seem just as, if not more, likely worst-case outcomes for 2012-3 (unless, you know, I’m dead wrong, and Mofaz, the man who would beat Bibi and never, ever, ever join a coalition gives us a heel face turn on Iran and it’s bombs away).

But even if he does not defect over Iran to the hawk, one does wonder what Mofaz is going to look forward in 2013 when elections will take place – although since they’re apparently going to get to do some election law rewriting, that question may be answered by Kadima itself! But what was promised, indeed, for the man who swore upon his election this spring that he would “replace” Netanyahu? And was a compromise on Iran policy staked out in these arrangements? 

What Bibi intends to do with the time and the Knesset majority he has bought himself through 2013 remains to be seen. West Bank settlement expansion, “court packing,” sanctions on the PA, bombing Iran, perhaps even further punitive measures in Gaza? - all are on firmer ground as of this week, “the putsch against war” notwithstanding.

Indeed, thanks to Kadima’s actions, “the putsch against war” may constitute the only serious challenge to Bibi’s politics right now, and that is cause for concern over the Iranian question (hopefully, the generals will not be swayed by Bibi’s efforts to influence the services with political appointees). The initiative on Iran, the settlements, the “peace process,” the national service debate and even the chance to pass new Basic Laws will stay with him for at least a year.

It’s good to be the king.

Paul Mutter

Paul Mutter is a contributor to Mondoweiss, Foreign Policy in Focus and the Arabist.

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25 Responses

  1. seafoid on May 8, 2012, 8:24 am

    “With elections around the corner, this would have become for Netanyahu a public showdown with either the settlers or with the court – and possibly both. By postponing the elections, the prime minister has bought himself some time to deal with the crisis.”

    You don’t procrastinate with cancer. Cancer just gets stronger.

  2. Bruce Wolman on May 8, 2012, 8:37 am

    Sound report.

    If Netanyahu and Barak are determined to attack Iran, I would hardly count on Mofaz’ entrance into the Inner Cabinet to be a game changer. The ex-General has shown he will do or say anything to be a playa.

    I never understood the Likud/Kadima split in the first place, except as a vehicle for Sharon’s grand geopolitical power play. Mofaz was never certain which party he wanted to join. The center-right members of Kadima flamed out under Livni’s leadership. Don’t be surprised if Likud and Kadima remarry, especially if there is a constitutional change allowing only the party with the most votes to lead a government. Such a change would be a good cover for the recomposition of Likud.

    If the Likud/Kadima alliance sticks, the true evolution and nature of the Israeli political landscape will finally be clear for even the most myopic Liberal Zionist.

  3. seafoid on May 8, 2012, 8:41 am

    Where is Lieberman in all of this? Was he too obnoxious for the world and the Israeli PR image ?

    “And here were are together, Shaul and I and the rest of the coalition, saying we’re pulling together for four main issues: to pass a fair and equal replacement of the Tal Law ; to pass a responsible budget; to change the system of governance; and, lastly, to try and promote a responsible peace process .”

    Tal Law

    Torato Omanuto (Hebrew: תורתו אומנותו, lit. Torah study is his artistry) is a term describing one whose Torah study (“Torato”; as a religious commandment) is his main occupation (“Omanuto”, his artistry). In Israel, the term is used to describe a special arrangement for the Israeli haredi sector, called Torato Omanuto arrangement. This arrangement allows young men enrolled in haredi yeshiva academies to complete their studies before their conscription in the Israeli Defense Forces. Conscription is normally compulsory for each Israeli citizen from 18 years of age, except Israeli Arabs, and lasts three years for men and two for women.

    The Tal committee reported in April 2000, and its recommendations were approved by the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in July 2002; the new Tal Law, as it came to be known, was passed with 51 votes in favour and 41 against. The new law provided for a continuation of the Torato Omanuto arrangement under specific conditions laid down in the law; it was hoped that the number of exemptions would gradually reduce. The new law did not however put an end to controversies and disagreements.

    In 2005, then Justice Minister Tzipi Livni stated that the Tal Law, which by then had yet to be fully implemented, did not provide an adequate solution of the problem, as only 1,115 of the 41,450 yeshiva students covered by the arrangement had taken the “decision year” provided by the law, and of these only 31 had later enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces.[1] In 2007 the Tal Law was extended until August 2012.

    Recite psalms to ward off missiles

    Responsible peace process

    • Mooser on May 8, 2012, 12:57 pm

      “Conscription is normally compulsory for each Israeli citizen from 18 years of age, except Israeli Arabs”

      This (whether in terms of conscription or recruitment) is exactly the nation-rupturing condition the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution was devised to remedy. It was not, as so many people contend, blanket permission to shoot our wives or other-hued citizens. Sorry for the digression, except as a way of pointing out the complete alienation from American political ideals our ally in the ME has.

  4. Citizen on May 8, 2012, 8:52 am

    Mr Mutter, thank you for your most excellent analysis on this sudden, new turns of events–it’s much more penetrating than the other articles I’ve read this morning in the Israeli press in English.

    I read an article yesterday in the Israeli press that said an Israeli official with regular access to the WH recently said that Obama was cool and always rational on every subject that comes to his desk, so to speak–except one, and that was that he has an emotional attachment to the Palestinians people’s plight. And Bibi knows it. Care to guess who that Israeli official is? And, how many foreign state officials have regular access to be around Obama and/or his immediate inside appointees?

  5. Shingo on May 8, 2012, 8:58 am

    Interesting and very sobering analysis.

    What will be interesting to see is how this is received by the Jewish community in the US. If Bibbi’s first term was enough to turn th stomach of Beinardt, then what would an even more extreme, agressive and unretrained Likud do to Liberal Zionists in the US?

    I can’t help but feel this is only going to lead to an even greater crisis for Israel.

  6. Mayhem on May 8, 2012, 9:26 am

    Netanyahu’s action was also referred to as the “move of a super-statesman” by Hanan Crystal on Israel Radio.
    Given the Israeli elections are such fractious, divisive affairs this maneuver should be viewed as a good one as it promises a diminution of the power of Shas and a more centrist policy position for the current government.

    • seafoid on May 8, 2012, 10:00 am

      “a diminution of the power of Shas ”

      If they want a new Tal law maybe the Orthodox are going to get the budget cuts Israel needs. But TBH they need to cut YESHA first for any sort of long term stability.

    • Mooser on May 8, 2012, 1:01 pm

      “Given the Israeli elections are such fractious, divisive affairs this maneuver should be viewed as a good one as it promises a diminution of the power of Shas…”

      Thanks, Mayhem, for letting us know exactly how much faith you have in the Israeli democratic process, and how high your estimate of the Israeli voting public is.
      Of course, the fact that you would disparage democratic elections as long as your favored politicians are in power is no surprise, nothing new there.
      And of course history shows so many examples of governments who cancel elections so they can take a more “centrist course”. Yeah, I’m sure it happens all the time.

  7. BradAllen on May 8, 2012, 11:17 am

    The fox does it again and he lives another life. sigh :(

    In contrast, check the picture in this article by the ICG; are these two the people who will bring peace to the middle east?

  8. American on May 8, 2012, 11:26 am

    Immaterial I think….Israel has never had a leader who wasn’t a Jewish or Zionist Supremist anyway.
    More interested in what’s happening in European elections….Hollande, supported by the Solicalist and far left, just replaced Sarkozy. Hollande appears to pay lip service to preventing Iran getting nukes and says boycotting Israel is illegal…
    BUT ……the big buggaboo is, France’s lefty S.Court keeps saying it isn’t illegal and has thrown out every case brought against boycotters.
    Could get interesting because Hollande is concentrating on Germany as the savior of the EU….Merkle has shown signs of fedupness with Israel so there could be some pro or con influencing on the Israel support between the two and some trade-offs or good cop, bad cops roles.

  9. annie on May 8, 2012, 1:02 pm

    thanks paul, excellent report.

  10. BillM on May 8, 2012, 1:05 pm

    Gotta give the man credit, he absolutely destroyed the opposition. One thing folks on the outside will soon notice vis a vis Israel and Iran: all the voices in Israel calling Bibi and Barak insane and warmongering on Iran will suddenly dry up. Those voices had reached a recent crescendo, but it had far less to do with the threat of war and far more to do with a political maneuver to isolate and polarize Bibi in advance of the election. Now that the election is off, those voices will largely disappear. This fact will be followed by stories that the disappearance of those voices is evidence that Israel has moved to a war footing and the danger of war is extreme. Happily, those stories won’t actually be true, they’ll just be a revival of the Israeli tactic to pressure the US by threatening a unilateral attack on Iran. Sadly, the tactic will work.

    • Shingo on May 8, 2012, 9:28 pm

      You might be right Bill,

      But one can be sure there will be a night of the long knives purge to come – any enemies of Bibbi will be destroyed and this will likely create more critics and lead to more amd more relevations. It might not affect Bibbi domestically, but those leaks wil eb heard loud and clear on the world stage.

  11. DICKERSON3870 on May 8, 2012, 1:18 pm

    RE: “It’s Good to be the King: Netanyahu scraps elections, buys off opposition and cements power with new unity gov’t”

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  12. Citizen on May 8, 2012, 1:27 pm

    Yikes, BillM, I think your are right! You should have cross-linked to the article here very recent on how Israel stole US uranium (with help of Israel Firsters here) and used the bomb it made with said uranium to blackmail US presidents by threatening to use it.

  13. FreddyV on May 8, 2012, 4:28 pm

    I made a jokey comment earlier about Netanyahu’s political maneuvering being similar to the Emperor’s in Star Wars. The mods obviously didn’t let it stand.

    But here’s my point. We have a radical messianic nutcase at the reigns who’s placated his opposition and now has none to speak of.

    At what point does this guy start talking about theocracy in order to reinforce the Greater Israel promises in the Torah?

    I’m worried.

  14. lysias on May 8, 2012, 5:40 pm

    It was, what?, a week or so between the time Levi Eshkol was forced to form a government of national unity and the time when Israel launched a sudden attack on Egypt and Syria?

  15. Henry Norr on May 8, 2012, 5:42 pm

    Richard Silverstein has fabulous quote from Mofaz’s Facebook wall, dated March 3, before he became leader of Kadima:
    “Listen carefully: I will not join Bibi’s government. Not today, not tomorrow, and not after I become head of Kadima on March 28th. This is an evil, failing, and pig-headed government and Kadima, under my leadership, will succeed it in the next elections. Clear enough?”

  16. piotr on May 9, 2012, 1:59 am

    It is not important if there are many voices in Israel that attacking Iran would be insane or few, it is important that it is insane.

    Direct blowback would most probably be directed elsewhere, unless Israel will attack Hezbollah first (which is highly possible). In my estimate, Iran will perform the easiest retaliations as its first priority, and they would be easiest because of the support in Russia, China and Pakistan (and all Central Asia which is surrounded by Iran, Russia and China, and is at least nominally Muslim). Transit of military supplies to NATO in Afghanistan will be cut, except for illegal flights over Pakistan, while the scope of supplies to insurgents in Afghanistan will be vastly different. It can result in thousands American casualties and very humiliating retreat (or surrenders?) With “thank you” notes for Israel.

    That retaliation would have negligible cost for Iran, except for overcoming their profound mutual hatred with Taliban.

    Sinking major US navy vessels would have a larger cost, but it is the second possibility. Hormuz is the third.

    I guess on Iran issue Mofaz can be Obama’s man in the Cabinet. Lieberman opposes the insanity as well, and so does Shas.

    Mofaz could provide support for obeying Supreme Court, with no differences in the overall scope of settlement expansion.

    The only major departure from current policies that I can imagine is in cutting the privileges of the ultra-Orthodox and the Rabbinate. Civil marriages? Basically, Lapidism without Lapid. However, I doubt it. My impression is that secular politicians in Israel do not have the stomach to do it. In their ideology, Israel is a Jewish state, so it should provide super treatment to super Jews. And the latter come in three categories: super nationalistic (settlers), super religious (Jews are defined by a religion after all) and super rich.

  17. talknic on May 9, 2012, 2:50 am

    BTW The Knesset passed a bill to suspend the Knesset BEFORE this little fiasco.

    Israel is no longer Governed by a democratically elected Government

    • Shmuel on May 9, 2012, 3:04 am

      BTW The Knesset passed a bill to suspend the Knesset BEFORE this little fiasco.

      Only the first of three readings. Kadimah requested a postponement of the 2nd and 3rd readings, while negotiations were going on.

    • Fredblogs on May 9, 2012, 3:25 pm

      Sorry, but Israel has a system of multiple readings of a bill before it becomes a law. Any law in Israel has to be voted on and passed 3 times.

      “Bills go through three stages, beginning with a first reading, consisting of a general debate in the plenum, presided over by the Speaker or a Deputy Speaker. At this stage, the bill can be accepted, removed from the Knesset table, or returned to the government. If the bill is accepted, it is referred to the appropriate committee for amendments. The bill is then returned to the plenum for a second reading, where the deliberations and voting take place on each section separately. In the third and final reading, the bill is presented in its final form, as adopted in the second reading.”

      So, yes, Israel is still governed by a democratically elected Government.

  18. Les on May 10, 2012, 7:18 pm

    M J Rosenberg beautifully summed up the new political union, “Sam’s Club Merges with Walmart.”

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