The astonishing shake-up in Israeli politics this week may have changed the entire game in Israel and the Middle East—and the prospects for war with Iran over its nuclear program.
By forming a unity government with his Likud Party’s principal opponent, Kadima, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has secured the “largest and broadest coalition government in recent [Israeli] history,” as The New York Times put it.
And when electorates are throwing out incumbents like Kleenex, Netanyahu may be in the strongest position of any Western democratic leader. His coalition now controls 94 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
Netanyahu came to power in 2009 on the back of a weak coalition with fringe religious and settlers’ parties and a couple of Labor Knesset Members (MKs), including former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
His principal opposition, Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni, won the most seats in the Knesset but couldn’t form a government, so Netanyahu did.
Last month, Shaul Mofaz ousted Livni in Kadima’s primary. He vowed never to join with Netanyahu, but Kadima was sagging in the polls.
So, when Netanyahu called a new election for September, Mofaz did a 180 and made common cause with the government. In return, he’lll be deputy prime minister. Now Netanyahu can wait until next fall to hold an election. He can get a lot done before them.
Like what? Here are two possibilities.
- Requiring ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the military. Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) don’t have to serve whereas everyone else does. With a nasty debate over the growing population and power of the haredim, changing this would broaden Netanyahu’s support among secular Israelis. With religious parties now truly marginalized, he has the leverage to do it.
- Changing Israeli electoral laws. Israel’s electoral system is a mess, since nobody represents specific areas of the country like, say, Haifa or Tel Aviv. Fringe parties hold disproportionate power, and there’s a low threshold for conducting no-confidence votes. Mofaz has said that’s a principal reason he joined the coalition, and he’s likely to get some big changes.
That leaves the biggest questions: Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations and Iran’s nuclear program.
I don’t expect much progress on the former. I see this coalition as a time-buying strategy, as Netanyahu sets himself up for a much bigger mandate next year. Only then, I think, will he wade back into the muddy waters of Palestinian negotiations, maybe with the support of a new American president.
Iranian-born Mofaz is actually a moderate on Iran and has called for Israel to wait until sanctions and negotiations play out before attacking its nuclear facilities. That echoes what a host of former and current Israeli security officials have said publicly.
But I wonder how long he can maintain that position as part of a government led by the hawkish Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Barak. And with the election now scheduled for next October, Netanyahu has an incentive to get any attack out of the way and let the smoke clear by the time voting begins.
So, on balance, I think it makes an Israeli attack on Iran more rather than less likely this year. And if the spectre of a unified Israel behind an unassailable Netanyahu isn’t enough to get Iran to negotiate seriously, what will?