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May 8, 2012 11:54 am

Kadima-Likud Unity Government As Much About Domestic Politics As Iran

avatar by Ezzy Rappaport

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Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu at school in Israel. Photo: EPA/David First/Pool.

The unexpected announcement early this morning by Kadima spokesman Yuval Harel that his party would soon join a Likud led coalition government, sent shockwaves through the Israeli political establishment and sent media outlets scrambling for information.  The statement confirmed by President Shimon Peres now in Canada, came on the foot heels of a call this past Sunday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for early elections to be held this fall on September 4th 2012. Adding to the confusion was the fact that only hours before, Israel’s Parliament the Knesset, held a late night debate and vote to dissolve the legislature, which would have allowed its members the opportunity to begin their campaigns as soon as possible. But now that the elections have effectively been canceled by the new unity government, this decision has fueled just as much speculation as it has controversy as to the reasons behind this hastily struck deal.

Iran is of course the first reason on everyone’s minds. There has been some criticism lately of PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak’s posturing toward a possible attack on Israel’s self-proclaimed enemy that is actively generating enriched uranium for what many assume is a nuclear bomb. With the centrist Kadima party in the coalition and its leader Shaul Mofaz acting as deputy Prime Minister, it would be easier for PM Netanyahu to sell the issue to the Israeli public and more importantly to somewhat restrain criticism from abroad leading up to and immediately following an Israeli airstrike on Iran. Any such action on Israel’s part would most likely elicit a violent reaction from Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, which could lead to a wider conflict and necessitating the broad support of all Israelis. And if the Iranian quagmire is later proven to have been the chief catalyst for this unity government, it’s interesting to note that Israel’s first ever coalition was also a wartime government, which was quickly assembled in 1967 just days before the outbreak of hostilities in the Six-Day War.

But Iran is not the only issue on the mind of the Israeli electorate or of Israel’s critics. The seemingly never ending peace process with the Palestinians has been stalemated over such issues as Hamas’ prominence, the daily barrage of rockets from Gaza, the Palestinians intransience on the right of return, and most importantly the refusal to accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. In Israel, coalition partners are given the leeway to act somewhat independently and in which case credit or blame for a proposed plan or an enacted policy falls first on the shoulders of the party that recommended it and the party leadership. Naming Mofaz, who has in the past been an outspoken critic regarding the peace negotiations as the Minister “in charge of the process with the Palestinians”, silences a political opponent and gives him the opportunity to either tackle the task if possible or declare it an absolute impossibility if he finds it so.

Another pressing issue which lies at the heart of Israeli culture and whose ramifications are just as wide, surrounds the Tal law which defers military service for the ultra-orthodox. The Israel Defense Forces is the most respected institution in Israel and considered a rite of passage for all Israelis into adulthood and society. There has been much debate recently as to if or how to integrate the ultra-orthodox into public service and the workforce, and the army is the expected first step to take on that journey. PM Netanyahu has promised to find an amicable solution and Mofaz has vowed to champion it. Doing so would free close to 1.5B Shekel (US$ 400M) in stipends to Yeshivot that most Israelis are tired of subsidizing and demand it be spent elsewhere, on education, creating jobs, and for desperately needed housing and infrastructure. Other domestic issues such as wide ranging financial reforms and avoiding the popular street protests of last summer are undeniably best accomplished and prevented respectively by silencing critics and joining forces to see it through.

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These issues notwithstanding, politics and the toll of a bitter campaign have their significances as well. In every election all parties campaign for themselves and focus most of their criticism on the dominant party and its leader. Were the Israeli campaign season to begin today, the next four months would have been spent in daily attacks against PM Netanyahu and his Likud party by even current coalition partners. And although most polls show the Likud winning at least 3o mandates or ¼ of the Knesset’s seats, the actual outcome and the possibility of forming a new coalition under Likud are far from certain. Talk had already surfaced of a Likud-Kadima coalition after the next election and even the return of former Likudniks that had bolted for Kadima under PM Ariel Sharon in 2005, to the party of their political youth. The current unity government that now includes 96 lawmakers and a broad representation of the political spectrum accomplishes all of the above without a dogmatic shot and in the cleverest of political fashions.

While there is strength in numbers, having an effective and respected team is crucial to implementing policy. As Defense Minister, Ehud Barak has worked closely and successfully with Prime Minister Netanyahu who has supported Barak even at the expense of angering his own constituency. And if recent polls were correct, Barak’s Atzmaut party would not have succeeded in winning any mandates to the next Knesset. That said, PM Netanyahu stood to lose a trusted friend and ally in his cabinet who is vital to the planning and implementing of his security and Iran strategies. In Israel many lifelong relationships are forged in the army and both Netanyahu and Barak served together in the elite paratroopers unit of the IDF as did Shaul Mofaz, who is as Barak also a former Chief of Staff and Defense Minister. Together the three form a strong national security team along with advisors from the right, left, and center, that can withstand the growing melodramatic condemnation of disgruntled former defense and intelligence officials now angling for their own political gains. Ironically Mofaz’s Kadima was also predicted to have significantly diminished numbers after the proposed election, in which case it’s been suggested that he avoided political irrelevance by accepting the PM’s invitation to take on this newfound purpose in return for Kadima’s support. But only history will be the judge as to whether Bibi saved Mofaz or perhaps its vise-versa, by the efficacy of this coalition and the change it seeks to implement.

Security concerns are paramount in Israel, but as in all countries politics, the economy, and other issues of national interest are similarly important. Prime Minister Netanyahu by reaching across the political aisle today has it seems successfully implemented the first phase of his plan to defend Israel and his government, to borrow an American expression, against threats both foreign and domestic. But keeping a coalition of varying ideals together and moving forward in policy implementation has only just begun, and in which case it’s appropriate to also add the end of that phrase, so help him G-d.

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