The stunning, late-night move in Israel this week that cancels early election plans and creates a strong national unity government is an example of the best and worst in Israeli politics.
Best for the country in that it keeps Iran as the primary issue while offering a real opportunity to pass the national budget, minimize the clout of the religious parties’ disproportionate influence, pave the way for a conscription bill ensuring that haredi yeshiva students serve their country and open the possibility for much-needed electoral reform and renewed negotiations with the Palestinians.
That’s an awfully tall order, but with 94 of 120 seats in the Knesset, the new Likud-Kadima coalition will have the clout and latitude to take decisive action.
The downside, of course, is that this kind of backroom political deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz underscores the vital necessity to improve an electoral system that allows small parties to control a coalition and does not offer Israeli citizens representatives accountable to them. That’s why four-year terms in Israel have been such a rarity. Many solid proposals have been made over the years that would give Israel a system closer to that of the United States, where the top executive has a guaranteed four-year tenure and does not need to constantly jockey politically within the coalition to keep it together. The trouble is that true reform requires the Knesset members to have the integrity to, in effect, vote themselves out of office — highly unlikely.
Netanyahu is a big winner as a result of realigning the government. He avoids the time and expense of an election campaign, though he was the clear favorite; protects his defense minister, Ehud Barak, politically; weakens the influence of foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, the haredim and the West Bank settlers; brings in a former army chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, to bolster his security credentials; and weakens the Labor Party, which decried the deal.
Mofaz may be the bigger winner. Newly elected to lead a Kadima Party that has 28 Knesset seats but stood to lose half of them in a September election, Mofaz has stabilized the party, for now, and becomes deputy prime minister, though it remains to be seen if that is a meaningful role.
Some say Mofaz joining the government so soon after stating publicly that he wouldn’t is an indication that a confrontation with Iran may be on the horizon, and that he and Netanyahu wanted his presence in the cabinet.
It is too soon to calculate the impact of Monday night’s political bombshell, but it is sure to cause aftershocks within Israeli society for a long time.