The closing of a deal for a national unity government in Israel and the consequent cancellation of scheduled elections represent political triumphs for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s maneuver is of significance not only for students of political tactics. Substantively, the new coalition unites the Israeli right and center into a single governing bloc. Netanyahu’s government will now enjoy the support of 94 members in the 120-member Knesset. This is the broadest-based coalition in Israeli political history.
The remaining 26 opposition MKs consist of the social-democratic left, the far-right, and the Arab parties.
On the face of it, the new coalition appears to have been made possible because of newly minted Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz’s setting of an extremely low price for his allegiance. Mofaz will receive the largely empty title of deputy prime minister and will serve as a minister without portfolio in the government. He will be the only Kadima member of the cabinet.
Mofaz appears to have agreed to this deal because his party was facing the prospect of electoral oblivion in the upcoming elections. Now the largest single party with 28 seats, polls had predicted that the centrist list would have fallen to around 10 seats following the now-cancelled elections.
What might prove most important is that Mofaz will be part of the security cabinet and consulted on all key decisions regarding military action. In other words, he would participate fully regarding any decision to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Netanyahu’s Likud, on the other hand, was headed for a decisive victory in the polls. This enabled the prime minister to drive a hard bargain.
The new coalition is not dependent on the support of any non-Zionist or religious party in order to maintain its majority. It can therefore serve as the instrument for far-reaching change in key areas of policy, should Netanyahu wish to use it to do so.
Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz have noted four areas on which the government will focus: finding a responsible alternative to the Tal Law, which allowed religious seminary students to escape military service; changing the governance system in Israel; passing a budget that will address economic and social needs; and pursuing the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
Of course, it is a far more open question as to whether any far-reaching policy moves in these areas will actually take place. With Netanyahu, there is a notable gap between presentation and content. The prime minister is a cautious figure who is known for seeking consensus within the cabinet and avoiding antagonizing allies. Despite the current ringing declarations of intent, it is very possible that once the new coalition is sworn in the prime minister will be pleased to pocket the political stability it gives him until October 2013 while avoiding major policy moves.
There is already speculation in Israel and beyond regarding what the creation of the new coalition could imply for the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran. It is undoubtedly the case that the new coalition will be the kind of broad alliance which Israeli leaders have historically preferred for pursuing military moves when deemed necessary. However, that such a coalition would be a necessary element for an attack on Iran does not mean that its appearance necessarily signals a move of this kind. In this regard, it should also be noted that Shaul Mofaz is one of the more outspoken supporters of a policy of allowing sanctions against Iran more time.
The adding of former IDF Chief of Staff Mofaz to the cabinet confirms another emergent Netanyahu pattern — namely, his preference for gathering around himself former military men whose undoubted professional skills are accompanied by a notable lack of political ones.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak is the senior representative of this type. Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon also exemplifies it. Mofaz is the third addition to the list.
Mofaz is famed in Israel for jumping from Likud to Kadima at the last possible moment when that party was established in 2005, having formerly made a ringing declaration that he was staying “home.” He now appears to have made a similar move in the reverse direction.
But though accurately seen in Israel as a mediocre politician, the Iranian-born Mofaz was a highly competent soldier and officer and a relatively successful IDF chief of staff.
The Winograd Committee’s report on the 2006 Lebanon War also revealed him to have been a consistently reasonable voice in Ehud Olmert’s chaotic wartime cabinet. Mofaz argued for an earlier use of ground troops in the war, but opposed the futile engagement of these forces in the dying days of the conflict. Both these decisions confirm him as a cool-headed, intelligent military thinker.
During his first prime ministership, Netanyahu’s admirers in the Likud used to refer to him as the “cosem” (magician). Since then, there have been failures and defeats and the magic sheen has long been tarnished. But the events of the last days prove that at least when it comes to mastery and management of the political process in Israel, the current prime minister is without peer. He is now the most experienced politician in the Israeli front rank, and it shows.
It would be premature, however, to predict subsequent far-reaching policy moves on any front. This Israeli prime minister is tactically bold, but strategically extremely cautious.