On Monday, all was set for the Israeli Knesset to vote no-confidence in the ruling coalition, dismiss itself, and head for early elections in September. In the Israeli legislative system, all bills go through three “readings,” and on late Monday night the no-confidence bill had already passed its first reading – but then, in the wee hours of Tuesday, Prime Minister Netanyahu, the man who had spearheaded the entire effort, scuttled the plan by striking a deal with Shaul Mofaz (the recently elected head of the main opposition party, Kadima), to form a unity coalition which will give the government fully 94 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
In a lifetime of living in/studying/writing about Israel/Palestine, there have been very few surprises. Most of the time, most events roll out in a distressingly predictable fashion. This, though? Wow. This blew my hair back. And that was before I knew what Mofaz had been saying.
I knew that Mofaz had been elected to lead Kadima (the leading opposition party),replacing (and pretty much crushing) pro-two-stater Tzipi Livni. I knew that Kadima is in disarray (having been formed as a matter of convenience in 2005 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from bits and bobs of the right [Likud] and left [Labor] in order to allow for his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza).
I did not know that Mofaz had said things like:
No, Kadima under my leadership will remain in the opposition. The current government represents all that is wrong with Israel, I believe. (on March 30).
The Netanyahu Barak couple is sabotaging the strategic bond between Israel & the United States. (May 7, the DAY BEFORE the coalition deal was struck).
Listen closely: I will not enter Bibi’s government. Not today. Not tomorrow…. This is a bad, failing and deaf government, and the Kadima that I will lead will replace it in the next elections. Clear enough? (March 3, on his Facebook wall).
If I had been aware of all that? My hair might have been blown clean off my head.
Now Shaul Mofaz is not exactly known for his purity of vision – he appears to be a man for whom, like Netanyahu, power is the point, more than any other concern. Sure, he comes at that need for power from a general worldview and political leaning, but these are not hills to die on. They are tools to use. Like Newt Gingrich, if you will.
Kadima was expected to do poorly in the just-called-then-canceled early elections, and Netanyahu himself didn’t appear likely to gain significantly more seats for the Likud party than he already had. At first blush, then, it seems to me that both men realized that going to elections would hurt them both, whereas joining forces might save them.
The most immediate implication of that realization is that the new coalition is so enormous that the Prime Minister will be able to do almost anything he wants.
Everyone’s eyes are thus turned to Iran, but I’ll be honest: I’m just not sure that Netanyahu wants to actually attack Iran, certainly not without very clear American support. I know he wants the world to be afraid that he will, and I know he wants the world to dance to his tune out of that fear.
But I further know that as long as we’re all looking at Iran, we’re not thinking about the fact that the settlements are growing and spreading, like a cancer metastasizing out of all control, while the Palestinians get battered again and again. There are 1,500 Palestinians hunger striking as we speak in Israel’s prisons today: ONE THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED. And what are we talking about? Iran, and Bibi-Mofaz. It’s long been my impression that the saber rattling about Iran is more about the settlements and Bibi’s need to stay in power, than it is about an actionable plan to attack Iran. This would hardly be the first time that saber rattling was used as a diversionary tactic.
Moreover, Bibi’s new friend has said pretty clearly that he doesn’t think Israel should plan on attacking Iran any time soon.
I could very well be wrong (PS: should we listen to anything Mofaz says?), and regardless, saber rattling doesn’t always end the way folks intended. People being people, things happen, and wars start.
Beyond Iran, though, there’s been speculation that maybe the new government will allow Bibi to be bold and break new ground with the Palestinians — but I am willing to stake whatever reputation I have on the fact that he has absolutely no desire to do anything of the sort.
There’s been speculation that maybe the new government will allow Bibi to draft ultra-Orthodox students and Palestinian-Israelis into national service (military or otherwise) — maybe, but Bibi knows that the ultra-Orthodox will be there after the next elections, too, and I can’t imagine him willingly taking on their fury, and b) the man really doesn’t like Arabs. I can’t see him wanting to grant Palestinian-Israelis a pathway to demanding more equality on the national stage (as a national service law would).
There’s been speculation that Netanyahu and Mofaz want to eviscerate the campaign of up-and-coming politician and former media personality Yair Lapid — this strikes me as pretty likely. Lapid’s natural audience is disaffected members of Likud and Kadima (with a smattering of what remains of the moribund Labor party), so knocking him out of the arena is crucial to both men’s futures.
And there’s been some speculation — in my own head — that a 94-seat coalition will allow Bibi to pass whatever laws he wants in order to quash the voices of social activists and peaceniks, a process that’s been underway for sometime now, and that’s got to hold some appeal.
Overall, this strikes me as a marriage of convenience between two men who will eventually tear each other apart. They both needed a crutch, and when one of them doesn’t need a crutch anymore? It’ll all come crashing down.
At any rate, regular elections are scheduled for October 2013.
Israeli governments so rarely manage to get through an entire four year term that it’s easy to forget that terms actually exist. But they do, and this one is nearly 3/4 done. Whatever these power-grasping politicians manage to do together, it will be with a very keen eye toward grasping yet more power — likely from each other — in another 16 months.
For more on the unity government and its possible implications, I highly recommend Mitchell Plitnick’s excellent “The Perils of Unity” (note especially his comments on Bibi’s relationship with the military) and the reporting and analysis of +972 Magazine.