Likud and Labor: The New Odd Couple of Israeli Politics
As for who wins, it's partly a matter of perception. Netanyahu clearly thinks that with center-left Labor, with its moderate image at his side, he can present a more agreeable face to the international community -- in particular, the new U.S. president, who said Tuesday that the incoming Israeli government won't make things "easier" but reaffirmed his commitment to creating a Palestinian state. On cue, the following day Netanyahu declared that his government will be a "partner for peace with the Palestinians," and his coalition deal with Barak states, in utopian fashion, that Israel will seek "a comprehensive regional arrangement for peace and for economic cooperation in the Middle East."
Again, the question is whether Israeli voters are getting what they asked for. Netanyahu is about to become prime minister because last month Israelis -- shaken by three years of Kadima rule that saw incessant shelling from Gaza and two wars directly resulting from territorial withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza -- overwhelmingly elected a more hawkish bloc. Netanyahu has indeed been deflecting the idea of a Palestinian state while citing the grave security problems it would entail. Yet, at the same time, he seems intent to pass himself off as a peacenik while making Barak -- who has a previous dovish record as prime minister from 1999-2001, and who, as defense minister since 2007, has obsessively sought ceasefires with Hamas -- his main compatriot at the helm of the Israeli state.
Beyond the vexed issue of "peace" and what it means to different people is the issue of war. Since Kadima's coalition broke apart last September, there have been persistent reports in Israel that Netanyahu and Barak were meeting and that despite the presumed gap between their parties Likud and Labor had formed a political alliance based mainly on a shared view of the Iranian threat. Netanyahu, moreover, was said to favor Barak as his eventual defense minister over new Likudnik and former chief of staff Yaalon, because of Barak's good relationships with key figures in Washington like Defense Secretary Robert Gates and, more recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
What is clear is that the insinuations that Netanyahu and Barak would end up side by side as stewards of the state have materialized. What is not clear is whether they agree on, and how they intend to handle, issues like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the ongoing pressures to further empower the Palestinians.
As for Iran, beyond the fact that Netanyahu and Barak appear to agree, what is not yet clear is how they aim to negotiate between an Obama administration that still seeks to woo the mullahs on the one hand and the growing nuclear threat to Israel's survival on the other.