Israel’s New Coalition: Why Netanyahu Has Moved to the Center

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Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz attend a joint press conference in the Knesset to announce a coalition deal between the parties on May 08, 2012 in Jerusalem.

By unveiling a new governing coalition that includes the centrist Kadima party, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only called off a national election he had just set for early September, he also re-calibrated the outlook of Israel‘s political establishment.  In the bargain, he spared his defense minister Ehud Barak, his former commander and current wingman in the campaign to threaten Iran, the indignity of facing voters who likely would have sent him packing.

What was behind Netanyahu’s surprise alliance with Kadima, which was announced at 2 a.m. Tuesday?  “I know the prime minister well and one week ago, he was not thinking of this,” says Ayoob Kara, a deputy minister and Likud lawmaker.  Indeed it was only on Sunday night that the prime minister looked out from the podium at the Tel Aviv fairgrounds and saw a sea of settlers at his Likud Party convention, recognizable by way of the knit skullcaps and headscarves commonly worn by the nationalist-religious Israelis who most ardently believe the West Bank was a gift from God.  A rising power in the Likud, the settlers helped deprive Netanyahu of what he wanted from the convention:  the power to determine the candidates on party”s election list.  Over the next 48 hours, the chastened premier quietly made the deal with a faltering Kadima, all but erasing the prospect of elections before November 2013.

The settlers are not happy. “This agreement not only allows the leftist Kadima party to sneak into the government and saves it from a near-certain death, it also further entrenches Ehud Barak in the position of Defense Minister for another year and a half,” complained Danny Danon, the settler advocate who contested the top Likud post expressly in order to keep Barak off the Likud candidate list. Barak, who as defense minister has near-final say on the expansion of West Bank settlements, is viewed by settlers as too deferential to Washington and other outside opinion that oppose settling Judea and Samaria, as Jews call the West Bank. “This move spells trouble for the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria and further moves us away from the traditional values of the Likud upon which we were elected,” Danon went on in a statement.  “We must not abandon our traditional partners by moving the coalition to the center and reviving the political corpse that is the Kadima Party.”

But the center is where the coalition has gone.  Netanyahu’s government can no longer be described as right-wing. With 94 of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament, called the Knesset, his new coalition has a wheel-base like a Humvee.  The only major party left to occupy the opposition is Labor, the center-left faction Barak abandoned last year amid internal dissent over the compromises he was making to appease the coalition, which it then left. (The new party Barak formed, dubbed Independence, barely registers in public opinion polls.)  After Tuesday’s bombshell announcement, the consensus was that Netanyahu has gained significant room to maneuver, and whatever he chooses to do with it is much more apt to look like its emerging from … well, consensus.

“This is a government that represents the vast majority of Israelis,” says Einat Wilf, a legislator with Barak’s party.

“He’s moving to the center,” says Nachman Shai, a Kadima lawmaker who sees Netanyahu’s bold stroke as an effort to steer Likud deeper into the mainstream of Israeli politics, where it began. “I think politically he wants them to return to their home.”

And what are the issues behind this ingathering of the parties?  Overwhelmingly domestic ones.  The top item on the coalition’s agenda is formulating a law requiring ultra-Orthodox Jews to begin pulling their civic weight, either by serving in the military or doing some form of national service.  The other big issue is electoral reform — recasting how Israelis elect their governments, especially to reduce the power of, not coincidentally, parties representing minorities such as the heavily-subsidized ultra-Orthodox.

Both matters are the sort better addressed from a broad-based coalition.  So, for that matter, is the question of how to undo Iran’s nuclear program, which Netanyahu and Barak have repeatedly threatened to bomb.  “Iran is always on the horizon,” says Shai. “But the word ‘Iran’ was not mentioned this morning at all. Doesn’t mean it’s not there.”   Kara, the Likud legislator, was more forthcoming. “The United States is going to elections in a few months, and after that I’m sure they’re going to go to a solution on this case,” he told a group of foreign reporters. Kara suggested the centrist coalition, including Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief of staff, will add credibility to a decision-making process that respected former security professionals have complained is dominated to an alarming degree by Netanyahu and Barak.

“Of course this gives us more power to cross Iran,” Kara says, “to do more actions in the world against Ahmadinejad and Iran.”

What did not feature in all this was the issue that still defines Israel to the outside world — its conflict with the Palestinians.   Peace talks are all but dead, and the Kadima leader who agitated to revive them, Tzipi Livni, lost her job to Mofaz last month.  Shai  said that Netanyahu actually offered to put Mofaz in charge of the issue, but that the former general demurred.  “If Livni was there, I guess it would be the number one topic,” Shai says. “The atmosphere in Israel has changed, for many reasons. The internal issues like the [ultra-Orthodox] law have much more attention. Unfortunately, I would say.”