The agreement was announced literally in the middle of the night. Once its details were finalized, the members of the Knesset factions of Likud and Kadima were summoned to the Knesset at 2 a.m. to ratify the agreement, which they quickly did. The deal took the Israeli political community, which was already gearing up for the early election, completely by surprise.
Mofaz became the head of Kadima just six weeks ago, replacing Tzipi Livni and paving the way for the unity deal. Livni and Netanyahu had become bitter antagonists, and it was clear that she would never agree to serve in his government. However Mofaz and Netanyahu had a history of working together in Likud-led governments under Ariel Sharon. Mofaz had insisted that he would never lead Kadima into the coalition, but the disastrous results predicted for Kadima in an early election gave him little choice.
The details of the deal were worked out in complete secrecy over a period of several days by Netanyahu’s former bureau chief Natan Eshel and Lior Horev, an aide to Mofaz. As the final agreement neared Monday, Likud leaders slowed down the legislative process of getting the Knesset to formally dissolve itself, without revealing why, to other members of the party.
ADVANTAGES TO NETANYAHU
The political advantages to Netanyahu from the deal are clear. In issuing his call for early elections, he admitted that his long-stable 66-vote Knesset majority had become politically vulnerable.
As Netanyahu explained to the cabinet, “for dozens of years, there hasn’t been a more stable government in Israel, but it is no secret that with the beginning of the fourth year of this term, there has been some instability within the coalition — between parties and within parties.” He added that the weakening of the government was detrimental to Israel’s security, economy, and society, and therefore the right thing to do would be “to launch speedy elections.”
He told a Likud gathering the previous day that “the achievements of this government are a result of a joint vision and a partnership that was possible due to political stability.”
The national unity deal restores that stability without the need for new elections or the political dealings required to form a new government. The deal leaves the current government essentially intact, while breathing life back into the political career of at least one of its key players.
According to the latest polls, Ehud Barak’s political party, Ha’atzmaut, which broke away from Labor two years ago, was not expected to reach the minimum number of votes needed to establish a Knesset, faction if early elections had been held in September. That, meant that Barak would probably not have a seat of his own in the next Knesset, casting doubt on his prospects for remaining defense minister. Now Barak’s position as defense minister appears to be secure for the duration of the unity government.
FINDING A SOLUTION TO THE TAL LAW PROBLEM
One of the keys to forging the national unity deal was Netanyahu’s agreement to put Kadima in charge of redrafting the Tal Law, which provides draft exemptions for students in Eretz Yisroel’s yeshivos. The law is due to expire at the end of July.
Even before early elections were called, a bitter political debate had restarted between the secular and the chareidi communities over the extension of the draft exemptions. Yisrael Beiteinu, Kadima and Meretz were eagerly exploiting secular opposition to extending them.
As soon as it became clear that Netanyahu was planning to call early elections, those parties issued an emergency call for the Knesset to take up the Tal Law before it voted to dissolve itself. If the Knesset had dissolved without acting, the Tal Law would have been automatically extended for at least six months.
Ending draft exemptions for yeshiva students has long been at the top of the agenda of the secular enemies of the chareidi community. The secular Israeli Supreme Court has also weighed in by ruling the Tal Law to be invalid.
The draft exemption policy has been in place since the early days after Israel was founded in 1948. It is one of the issues included under the so-called “status quo” agreement between the government and the leadership of the religious community at that time to continue those public religious policies which were in force.
Netanyahu had also publicly called for the Tal Law to be updated with new legislation to “make the burden [of national service] more equal and fair,” but he was prepared to wait for the next Knesset to tackle the job, and refrained from attacking the chareidi parties over the issue.
The national unity agreement provides few details about the new law, other than promising to create “an egalitarian and fair” system for sharing the burden of military serving among all segments of Israel’s population. That means that the issue will now be moved behind closed doors, where the crucial details of the new draft system and its exemption criteria will be hammered out.
Another looming challenge to the stability of Netanyahu’s coalition had been the likelihood that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will soon be forced to step down to face trial on criminal charges lodged against him. The resulting turmoil within his Yisrael Beiteinu party would raise questions about its future in the coalition. But now, with the added cushion of Kadima’s 28 Knesset votes, Netanyahu can afford to lose Yisrael Beiteinu’s 15 votes and still remain firmly in power.
In announcing the deal with Netanyahu, Mofaz emphasized that he was not doing so to gain control of a government ministry. He will join the government as the senior vice premier and a minister without portfolio, and he will become the ninth member of the inner “Security Cabinet” which makes the crucial decision regarding matters of peace and war. It is also apparent that if Lieberman is forced to step down, Mofaz, as the leader of Netanyahu’s largest coalition partner, will be the first one in line to replace him as foreign minister, whether Yisrael Beiteinu likes it or not.
Other Kadima members will be given key positions of power in the Knesset, including chairmanship of the Finance committee, and Mofaz will retain his current position as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense committee. However, for the time being, there were no other changes announced in the cabinet.
ISRAEL’S NEW POLITICAL POWER COUPLE
At a joint press conference Tuesday afternoon, Netanyahu and Mofaz elaborated on the details of their agreement. They set four top priorities for the new unity government, starting with “replacing the Tal Law with a historic, just and equal solution.” They also pledged to pass “responsible budget addressing security, economic and social issues.” The leaders promised to develop a proposal to reform the Israeli government system to increase its stability so that serving out its full four year term would become “the rule and not the exception.” Finally, the agreement turns over to Mofaz the responsibility of reviving the peace process with the Palestinians and moving it forward.
Reforming the Israeli system of government and successfully restarting the peace process are goals which have eluded all of Israel’s recent leaders. However, making the effort is considered to be important in Israeli politics, even if achieving success is highly unlikely.
Netanyahu said the key moment came when he realized that “I could bring Israel the stability it needs by creating a very broad government without having to go to elections.” He also congratulated Mofaz for “taking an important step which brings hope to all Israel.”
Mofaz and Netanyahu said that they had agreed to form a unity government out of a sense of responsibility to the country at a time of national crisis. Mofaz emphasized that he did not do it in order to gain a more desirable position for himself, but rather “in order to help Israel to succeed..”
Mofaz called the creation of the national unity government a “historic step.“ He predicted that the expanded coalition will be “better able to make crucial decisions at a crossroads in Israel’s destiny.”
Referring to the threat to Israel posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons program without mentioning Iran by name, Mofaz said that Israel’s “leaders must make big decisions that will affect the country’s destiny” and that Israel now faced the “hardest challenges.”
EARLY ELECTIONS AND THE IRAN PROBLEM
Prior to the announcement of the national unity deal, the Israeli media seemed to be obsessed with finding a connection between Netanyahu’s call for elections on September 4 and the likelihood that Israel would launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran either before or after that date.
Some analysts cited the precedent of the Israeli attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 which was ordered by Prime Minister Menachem Begin just before an Israeli election. Others argued that Netanyahu would not dare to launch a risky attack on Iran just before an election for fear that if the attack failed, he would lose too many votes.
Some suggested that just because Netanyahu has never before, as prime minister, led Israel into a war, he would not do so now, no matter how grave a threat Iran presents.
Others claimed that once the Knesset was dissolved in anticipation of early elections, the government would take on the status of a caretaker without the right to make politically controversial decisions. However, Barak quickly made it clear that if the government decided that national security required an attack on Iran, its caretaker status would not interfere with its ability to carry out that decision.
Some felt that Netanyahu might prefer to attack Iran during the two month window between the September 4 early election date and November’s US presidential election because the composition of the next Israeli government would have already been set. With the attack coming so close to the presidential elections, Obama’s options would be limited by his need for the votes and political contributions from American supporters of Israel.
After several days of this kind of conjecture by a number of armchair generals in the Israeli media, the prime minister’s office issued a terse statement throwing cold water on all these theories. It declared that the strategic threat against Iran played no part in Netanyahu’s decision to select the date of September 4 for the election. But that, of course did nothing to stop all the rampant public speculation about it, or to prevent Western media outlets, such as the New York Times, from repeating this conjecture as if it were proven fact.
STRENGTHENING ISRAEL STRATEGICALLY
With early elections now off the table, we can expect the same analysts to start considering the strategic implications of the formation of a national unity government.
In recent weeks, there has been increased criticism of Israel’s public threats against Iran from voices in Israel’s military and security establishment. The creation of a national unity government brings some of those voices inside the coalition, and adds Mofaz’s military experience and reputation to the security cabinet as it continues to grapple with the problem of the appropriate response to Iran’s nuclear threat.
With some of the critics of his Iran statements neutralized, and his coalition now supported by a supermajority in the Knesset, Netanyahu is in a much stronger political position to launch a war against Iran, if he chooses to do so.
MOFAZ GETS A POLITICAL LIFELINE
The national unity deal also threw Mofaz a political lifeline, at a time when he desperately needed it. He was still settling in as the new leader of Kadima, and was unprepared for early elections in which his party was facing the prospect of losing more than half its strength in the Knesset.
Kadima is still the Knesset’s largest party with 28 seats, but its popularity was badly eroded under the leadership of Tzipi Livni. Polls showed that if an early election had been held, much of Kadima’s strength would be siphoned off to Likud, Labor and a new anti-religious party called Atid which is being formed by Yair Lapid, the son of the late Tommy Lapid, who founded the anti-religious Shinui party.
.Kadima has never had a compelling ideological rationale for its existence. It was formed by Ariel Sharon in late 2005 to allow him to create a new government that was free of the influence of the right wing of Likud, which was furious at him for pushing through the Gaza disengagement earlier that year.
Sharon persuaded members of Likud and Labor to join his new party by offering them the power which came with being a member of the government. Kadima never had an identifiable political ideology or a raison d’etre beyond pure political opportunism.
After Sharon fell ill in early 2006, and leadership of the party passed to Ehud Olmert, it kept going on the same basis. Its only political platform was a continuation of Sharon’s strategy of withdrawing from captured territory to separate Israel from the Palestinians.
With the encouragement of the US, Olmert initiated negotiations with PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas on an agreement for a withdrawal from most of the West Bank. Abbas terminated those talks after Olmert was forced to resign as prime minister in late 2008. Netanyahu’s subsequent rise to power prompted Abbas to abandon negotiations with Israel, making Kadima’s entire peace agenda moot.
As the leader of the opposition, Livni failed to present a credible alternative to Netanyahu’s policies. She was also unable to attract voter support for her party, and her recent removal as the Kadima leader did not generate much regret.
Mofaz, as her replacement, has a credible record as a former Israeli Army general and defense minister, but his suitability to serve as a prime minister is still a novel idea that has yet to make much headway with Israeli voters. Since entering national politics, Mofaz has developed a reputation for opportunism which was confirmed once again by his new deal with Netanyahu.
NETANYAHU AT THE PEAK OF HIS POWER
On the other hand, the prime minister is now at the peak of his political popularity, and his call for early elections represented an effort to take full advantage of that strength.
Recent public opinion polls show that if a Knesset election were held today, Likud would emerge as the strongest party in Israel, with a total of 32 seats. The second strongest party would be Labor, with about 20 seats, followed by Yisrael Beiteinu, which be expected to retain its current strength of 15 seats. Kadima would be the big loser, losing about half of its current 28 Knesset seats. It would be reduced to competing with Shas and Lapid’s new party for fourth place.
With respect to his personal standing, Netanyahu appears to be the only national political figure whom a significant percentage of Israeli voters are willing to trust. When asked who was best suited to serve as prime minister, Netanyahu was preferred by 48 percent of respondents, far outdistancing his closest competitor, Shelly Yacimovich of Labor who was supported by only 15 percent, with Lieberman and Mofaz trailing in single digits.
The most surprising of these findings was the comparatively strong showing by Yacimovich, who is still new to Israeli politics. In contrast to Lieberman or Mofaz, she has no prior experience whatsoever as a government minister. Her main political asset appears to be her high name recognition level, left over from her previous career as a popular Israeli media personality.
MOFAZ PUT ON THE SPOT
The timing of Netanyahu’s call for early elections was particularly awkward for Mofaz, who has been Kadima party leader for just six weeks. He has not yet had a chance to establish his credentials as a serious national political figure, and if the Knesset had been dissolved, he would not have had a chance to demonstrate his legislative skills before the election.
Publicly, Mofaz took Netanyahu’s decision to call early elections as a move directed against him. He said that “Netanyahu sought to hold elections as early as possible mainly because of us, because of me. He didn’t want to give me time to get organized.” Privately, he took it as a signal to make the best deal he could with Netanyahu before his party’s considerable strength in the Knesset evaporated.
As part of the government, Mofaz now has an additional year to put his own unique brand on Kadima and establish it as a party with a distinct identity, before he must lead his party into an election. If he cannot do that, the end result is likely to be the absorption of what is left of Kadima back into Likud. With the departure of Livni, Kadima lost much of what remained of its left wing. The effective leadership of the opposition to Netanyahu had already effectively moved to Labor, which, after the departure of Barak, has reorganized itself into a pure left wing party.
LEFT WING AND SECULAR HOPES SMASHED
The cancellation of the call for early elections smashed the hopes of some of Israel’s newest political leaders. who had looked forward to the vote as an opportunity to strengthen their parties and enhance their personal reputations.
Yacimovich, who now becomes the formal leader of the opposition, called the deal between Mofaz and Netanyahu “a covenant of cowards. This is the most ridiculous, disgusting zigzag in Israeli political history.”
Perhaps the biggest loser from the deal is Yair Lapid, whose plans to launch his new, anti-chareidi Atid party with a strong showing in September’s election have now been sidetracked.
He called the new deal between Likud and Kadima a “disgusting political alliance. What you saw today is the old politics, dim and ugly, of which we should rid ourselves. It is a politics of chairs instead of principles, of jobs instead of the public’s welfare, of one group’s interests instead of those of the entire country,” again pressing his attack against the chareidi community.
GRUMBLINGS IN THE RANKS
There was also some grumbling in the ranks of Kadima and Likud. Former Kadima leader Livni posted a statement online implying that the national unity deal was dirty politics. She also challenged Mofaz’s credentials as a member of her party, characterizing him as “someone who joined the government because he had no other choice.” Livni also predicted, with disappointment, that under the agreement, the new draft law will not reduce the number of exemptions granted to yeshiva students.
Likud MK Danny Danon complained that the national unity deal violates the values of those who voted for Likud, Instead those voters will now get Kadima and another year and a half of Ehud Barak as defense minister.
Other Likud members questioned why their party should rescue Kadima, which was in the process of self-destruction. The best answer came from environment minister Gilad Erdan, who said, “I don’t care that we’re saving Kadima. We are killing Lapid and Livni.”
RELIEF IN THE RELIGIOUS PARTIES
The leadership of Shas and UTJ quietly welcomed the national unity deal for two reasons. First, it maintains their positions within the current government, rather than subjecting them to the uncertainties of a new election and coalition formation. Second, it temporarily removes the explosive draft deferment issue from the front burner of Israeli politics, and turns it over to a coalition committee where there is a much better chance that a satisfactory agreement on the issue can be reached.
The postponement of elections also means that UTJ and Shas will be able to maintain their current level of political clout. Polls had predicted that if an early election had been held in September, Shas would have lost 3 of its current 11 Knesset seats, while UTJ would have probably maintained or slightly improved its current strength..
Shas Chairman Eli Yishai praised the unity agreement, saying that Kadima posed no threat to Shas’ position in the coalition. He also expressed confidence that Shas’ relationship with Netanyahu remains secure.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE DRAFT ISSUE
Addressing the promised effort to replace the Tal Law, Yishai said, “We’ll find an alternative that will be agreed upon by all sides. It doesn’t appear that the army really wants to recruit chareidim. Today it can recruit another thousand chareidim, but it does not choose to do so — also due to economical considerations. The ruling of the Supreme Court did not determine that everyone must be recruited, but that the current situation must be changed — and we will make changes.”
Yishai is right on that point. The draft exemption issue has always been something of a red herring, because Israeli army generals really don’t want large numbers of unwilling yeshiva students in their ranks. However, during every Israeli election season, the draft exemption issue has served as a convenient excuse for anti-religious leaders to try to blacken the reputation of the chareidi community.
UTJ Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman also said that he supports a unity government “not because I’m afraid of elections, but because I would like to continue the ongoing process of (implementing policies). Netanyahu promised our faction that the coalition agreement would not be altered, so the statements regarding a replacement for the Tal Law or a change in the system of government have no bearing on the chareidi parties and their constituencies.”
DERI’S COMEBACK DELAYED
There was some concern that former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri was planning to stage a comeback by competing in the early election if it had been held in September.
Deri was barred from electoral politics for ten years after his disputed criminal conviction in 2000 on corruption charges. He had helped to found Shas, and as its chairman, he built it into a powerful force in Israeli politics.
Reports said that Deri was preparing to announce the creation of a new party which would bridge the divide between Israel’s religious and secular communities, despite a reported warning from Rav Ovadia Yosef that he would oppose any party Deri might form in competition with Shas. Deri also reportedly refused an offer from Shas to give him its third spot on its candidate list for the September election, below party chairman Eli Yishai and Ariel Attias.
All such wheeling and dealing will now be put on hold, as everyone adjusts to the new political alignment, and election plans are put back on the shelf for another year.
NETANYAHU EMERGES STRONGER
The result is that Netanyahu now finds himself in a much stronger and politically secure position than he was before, and Israel will be spared the upheavals that elections invariably brings.
From a strategic point of view, Netanyahu has much more latitude in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. The addition of Mofaz, a respected military man, to the coalition’s strategic team is another plus, as is the agreement to maintain the political stability of the coalition for the next year and a half.
None of this makes Netanyahu’s decision about whether or not to attack Iran any easier, but at least he no longer has to worry as much about watching his back.