Unity Government: Shocking Opportunity

Israelis are hard-core news addicts, and I, like others, need my morning fix. But on Tuesday, May 8, what we all heard was a shock to the entire country, including the media.

When Israelis went to bed Monday night, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the government and the Knesset were galloping full speed ahead toward early elections on Sept. 4. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition partners were restless, and, with his personal approval ratings at an all-time high, he and his close advisors decided that the sooner the elections, the better for him and Likud.

The primary issues straining the coalition were:

1) The two biggest partners in the coalition (Yisrael Beteinu and Shas) held strongly opposing views on the Supreme Court deadline to end the “Tal Law” exempting most Ultra-Orthodox from military service.

2) Most of the coalition opposed a Supreme Court ruling requiring the government to dismantle a neighborhood in the West Bank settlement of Beit El. Opponents demanded legislation to allow the government to circumvent certain Supreme Court rulings. Netanyahu strongly opposes such legislation because he realizes the negative repercussions it would have on Israeli democracy and on our international standing.

3) The smaller parties in the coalition oppose a move to raise the minimum number of votes needed to achieve Knesset representation.

4) Negotiations on the upcoming budget for 2013 would, as always, be vulnerable to sectoral pressures.

Until May 6, Netanyahu believed quick elections would defuse these issues, would strengthen his position vis-à-vis his coalition partners and would soundly defeat the opposition. With the main opposition party, Kadima, in implosion mode, and with Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid (there is a future) party unprepared for elections, it seemed the perfect time.

The Likud gathering that day was intended to be the showcase for Netanyahu’s decision to hold early elections. Instead, an increasingly hostile party rank and file threatened his election as the chairman of the upcoming Likud convention. Netanyahu reportedly expressed shock that so many yarmulke-clad delegates supported an extremist agenda that is foreign to the traditional Likud platform. West Bank settlers and other hardliners who do not vote for the party in general elections have infiltrated the party institutions and influenced the party’s Knesset members who know opposition to the settlers’ agenda can threaten their seats. Suddenly, Netanyahu’s aggressive move for elections in September seemed risky.

Highly secret meetings regarding the possibility of Kadima joining the coalition and forming a national unity government suddenly took on new urgency.

Kadima, with its new leader, Shaul Mofaz, who recently dethroned Tzipi Livni, has been losing altitude in the polls at an astonishing rate. Infighting and an unclear social agenda have been its undoing. Mofaz’s tactic of relentlessly attacking Netanyahu was backfiring. The party was headed for an election disaster. The only way to avoid this was to put off the elections, and the only way Kadima could do this was, ironically, to join the government. As Benjamin Disraeli said, “In politics nothing is contemptible.”

Thus, on that Tuesday morning, Kadima, the largest party in the Knesset and the main opposition party, joined the government, bringing the coalition to an overpowering 94 seats in the 120-member Knesset. The coalition agreement was not immediately disclosed, but no ministries were awarded to the new Kadima members of the coalition; only Mofaz became a minister, without portfolio. Was this an admirable gesture by Kadima or was this Kadima entering the coalition on its knees?

At the joint press conference held by Netanyahu and Mofaz, the latter declared that sometimes the good of the country overrules every other consideration. Mofaz added that the coalition agreement included three principles that enabled Kadima to abandon the opposition and join the government: rapid legislation requiring all Israelis, religious, secular, Jewish, Palestinian, to either do military, civil or community service for three years; immediate attempts to renew negotiations with the Palestinians; and prioritizing change in the electoral system. A noble agenda, but the obvious political interests create skepticism.

In one fell swoop, Kadima remained in the Knesset for probably another year and a half, appearing to prefer their seats over their ideology. Mofaz could have paraphrased Charles de Gaulle when he said, “In politics it is necessary either to betray one’s country or the electorate. I prefer to betray the electorate.”

Netanyahu succeeded in sending a “don’t mess with me” message – both to his own party and to the other coalition partners. He now has enough seats to retain power, even if one of the current parties leaves the coalition. Furthermore, he has signaled to his own party that a departure from the traditional Likud doctrine of secular and democratic right-wing nationalism can be countered. One commentator quipped, “Now that he has opened up freedom to maneuver within the coalition, we will see what Bibi really believes.”

Most of the media and public criticism was directed at Mofaz. Headlines on articles bout Mofaz included: “Mr. Zigzag,” “It Stinks” and “The Elected have Rejected the Voters.” A representative talkback comment read: “Will somebody tell me how in the world my vote for Tzipi Livneh in 2009 is now a vote for Netanyahu?” One television commentator said that “Mofaz probably has such thick skin that he has no need for a backbone.”

While the backdoor deal was worthy of criticism and strengthened most disgust with politics, I think at least part of the criticism is due to the media’s frustration at being so completely surprised. If the declared goals of Kadima are achieved by this government of unity, the contribution to the country will be tremendous.

A less fragmented and sectoral coalition has much potential. As the columnist Moshe Ronen wrote: “Only with a coalition of this size is there a hope that fundamental laws that a majority of Israelis have been waiting for years to have passed, can happen. A law to regulate the burden of national service and a law to change the electoral system are now possible because there is not a need to depend on the religious and ultra-orthodox parties. Secondly, only this development, which places Netanyahu squarely in the center of the government, will allow him to advance some type of peace process. This was not possible before when any concession could have brought down the government. Thirdly, only a widely based unity government can formulate and pass a just and reasonable budget that will ease the burden on the middle class without the pressures of the small and sectoral parties that do not care for the general populace.”

Yes, it would have been nice if the unity government had formed in a more transparent manner. The sane majority on the right and the sane majority on the left have far more in common with each other than with the coalition partners with which Likud or Labor have paired in the past to cling to power. This is the first unity government since the mid-1980s. Israel and the Middle East are much different than they were then. I hope, maybe naively, that this is a necessary evil. I am not optimistic that these important goals will be achieved. However, I am positive that at least there is a chance that it will happen. Yoaz Hendel, until recently spokesman for the Prime Minister’s office, wrote that the deal “came from a Machiavellian motive, but the result is desirable.”

Mylan Tanzer is a Portland native who moved to Israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at mylantanz@gmail.com.

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