Likud and Labor: The New Odd Couple of Israeli Politics
Following a rowdy session replete with impassioned speeches and audience jeers and boos, on Tuesday night the central committee of Israel's Labor Party voted 680-507 to join Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu's governing coalition.
Netanyahu has been desperate to go beyond a narrow right-wing coalition ever since the February 10 elections. He enticed Labor's 13 members of Knesset (MK) with a generous deal that will give them five cabinet posts, two deputy ministerial positions, and chairmanships of major Knesset committees. Netanyahu's earlier attempt to get Tzipi Livni's 28-MK Kadima Party to join his 27-MK Likud Party in the new government failed.
The 13 Labor MKs were sharply split between a group headed by Defense Minister (both currently and in the new government) Ehud Barak that favored joining and a more left-leaning group that denounced joining the coalition as an ideological sellout likely to lead to Labor's extinction. It's possible that the remaining six naysayers will -- in a move that would indeed jeopardize Labor's future -- split from the party to form a new opposition faction.
Fifteen MKs from the secular-right Yisrael Beiteinu Party and 11 MKs from the religious, right-leaning Shas Party have already joined Netanyahu's coalition. If Labor holds together, it means that Netanyahu now has a solid majority coalition of 66 (out of 120) MKs and is in a stronger position to negotiate with the remaining small, religious, and right wing parties that are still interested in joining.
Who are the winners and losers in this new state of affairs?
One loser is undoubtedly Netanyahu's Likud Party itself. Likud members are outraged at the number of cabinet posts Labor has received, along with those posts allocated to Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, and a non-party professional as justice minister. This leaves very few positions for those within Likud, even though Likud's 27 mandates make it by far the largest party. As a result, talented and popular Likudniks like former Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon and former Minister Benny Begin have been left out of the top posts. In his zeal to include Labor, Netanyahu has in fact handed his own colleagues a raw deal.
Beyond the Likud Party, though, the Israeli electorate isn't exactly getting what it voted for. Although polls show a large majority of the public in favor of a national-unity government of some kind, Labor, with its lowly 13 seats -- and, moreover, as part of the center-left bloc roundly defeated by the center-right bloc -- is getting far more than its electoral due. This stems from Israel's difficult parliamentary system, where people vote solely for parties of widely varying descriptions and sizes, and never for individual leaders or geographic representatives.
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.