Israeli columnists are calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the “King of Israel” after the new unity government he forged together early Tuesday gave him the political leverage he craved to remake parts of Israeli society.
“He has brought in [to his coalition government] a large centrist party, which tends to somewhat neutralize the right-wingers in his coalition and gives him more leeway to maneuver,” observed Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst and co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian online publication BitterLemons.net.
“How he is going to exploit that in the next 15 months is yet to be determined,” he added, noting that elections are scheduled for October 2013.
Netanyahu said Tuesday that he had been prepared to call elections for Sept. 4 in part because of disputes in his coalition involving the fervently Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties and the staunchly secular Yisrael Beiteinu Party.
But in predawn discussions Tuesday with the new leader of the centrist Kadima Party, Shaul Mofaz, Netanyahu convinced him to join his government. In return, Mofaz becomes vice premier and was put in charge of coming up with a “responsible” alternative to the Tal Law, which exempts fervently Orthodox students from compulsory military service.
In addition, Mofaz has been placed in charge of the peace process with the Palestinians, and is expected to have a major role dealing with the economic and social concerns raised during last summer’s massive street demonstrations.
But it is the Palestinian issue that Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, said he is most hopeful that Netanyahu will resolve.
“He will have plenty of time between now and October 2013 to conclude a peace agreement with the Palestinians,” he said. “In my view, that would be the greatest thing that could happen to Israel. He can begin the process now and conclude it after the American elections. … It would be an historic move if it is utilized to achieve something that has eluded so many in the past.”
Ben-Meir pointed out that Mofaz has already proposed his own peace plan that “speaks openly about evacuating settlements, if necessary. I don’t think he would have joined the government without an understanding of what do with the Palestinians.”
The new unity government with 94 seats in the 120-member Knesset would mean that the right-wing parties could no longer topple the government should they leave in protest over the dismantling of West Bank settlements. And Ben-Meir said he believes negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could proceed relatively smoothly because “most of the issues were agreed upon in [talks in] 2000 and 2008.”
“Hamas has already indicated that it would look into any agreement reached and then put it to a referendum,” he added.
But Alpher pointed out that Netanyahu has not endorsed Mofaz’s Palestinian proposal and is doing no more than “paying lip service to the need to move seriously on this issue.” He said Mofaz’s plan calls for a phased withdrawal from illegal Israeli settlements and “recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 border, which is something Netanyahu cannot agree to.”
“So don’t expect a lot of progress on this issue, and my guess is that Mofaz understands that,” Alpher said.
Jonathan Rynhold, a specialist in U.S.-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University, said he too would be watching to see if Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor “push Kadima to make a diplomatic initiative with the Palestinians and offer them something.”
He said he believes the Palestinian issue must be pursued, barring major developments on the Iranian issue.
“It’s anyone’s guess what will happen with Iran,” Rynhold said. “Very few people know the real information, and my sense is that no decision has yet been taken. We can say that if Israel felt that [President Barack] Obama would use military force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear nation, it would swing Israel not to act. But unfortunately, it is an open question of whether we can rely on the Americans … and Israel is definitely preparing to strike.”
By bringing in Mofaz, a former chief of staff and defense minister, Netanyahu has also broadened the leadership making the key decisions about war with Iran. The inner cabinet would now include three Israel Defense Force chiefs of staff — Barak, Mofaz and Moshe Ya’alon.
“This is a return of the security establishment to the center of the government,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “And the fact that there is a consensus unity government making these decisions gives the government far more credibility than one based on a very narrow majority.”
He said he is optimistic about the new government.
“I may be naively optimistic, but this was a clever move that surprised all the pundits,” Steinberg said. “With Kadima in the government, Shas and the other right-wing parties have no leverage to bring down the government, and I would be surprised if they left.”
He said Mofaz benefits most from the new arrangement because it gives the party a “new lease on life.” Public opinion polls had forecast that Kadima would capture only about a dozen seats in new elections in September, down from its current 28.
If the unity government finds an alternative for the Tal Law and changes the electoral system, Steinberg said, Kadima “will be able to go back to voters and say it is the genuine centrist party without which Netanyahu would have been pulled to the extreme right by some Likud activists and the [right-wing] parties.”
The electoral reform spoken about would be designed to “create more stability for the center and reduce the ability of the small parties to extort for their fringe positions,” Steinberg pointed out.
The last broad-based Israeli consensus government was able to work together to end inflation and fix the Israeli economy, which since then “has been flying,” he added. “That shows the ability of a broad-based consensus government to make fundamental, lasting changes.”
Such governments have been formed at other times, most notably in 1984 when the rotation government that was agreed upon had a coalition of a record 97 seats, according to Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
This large coalition might be able to more easily find an alternative to the Tal Law. Diskin pointed out that there are two large populations in Israel who don’t perform national service — the Israeli Arabs and the fervently Orthodox, although some do serve.
“You can say let’s decide to enlist everybody, but that would never be implemented because you cannot put 10,000 yeshiva students and 30,000 Arabs in jail each year because they don’t serve,” he said. “A law that is acceptable is not simple to formulate. The ultra-Orthodox parties want moderate change and Israel Beiteinu says it wants equality now.”
Even if some compromise were reached on the Orthodox yeshiva students, Diskin said the “Arabs will not agree to suddenly perform some kind of service when they have not done so since the state was founded.”
Other analysts suggest that whatever arrangement is concluded will exempt the Arabs.
On the issue of electoral reform, Diskin said, “most of the ideas I hear about are quite problematic.”
For instance, one proposal is to require that parties receive at least 5 percent of the vote in order to win a seat in the Knesset; the threshold is now 2 percent.
“It’s a very bad idea,” Diskin said, explaining that if only three parties reached the threshold and neither had 61 seats, the smallest party would be the kingmaker.
Steinberg said there is also “talk of writing a constitution and calling a constitutional congress to present a consensus document that would spell out relations between the rabbinate and the state. There are drafts now floating around. I don’t expect it to happen, but there will be an effort.”
Diskin said that in the short run the unity government would stabilize things.
“But in the long run, there may be coalition problems as they had before,” he said. “We had cases of severe tensions in previous governments and the fact that there is a large coalition doesn’t guarantee anything.”