Saturday, May 12, 2012

Post #266 - Israel Tilts on Its Axis

Almost everyone was surprised by the recent shift in Israeli politics. This is the way Churches for Middle East Peace [full disclosure: I am a member of the CMEP board] covered the development, and its possible impact on planning for a strike on Iran:

Elections Cancelled After Late-Night Deal

In a stunning turn of events, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled the elections slated for September and broadened his coalition by striking a deal with Shaul Mofaz, leader of the opposition party Kadima. Kadima is the largest single party Knesset and after the deal, 94 out of the 120 legislators are in Netanyahu’s coalition. This arguably makes Netanyahu the strongest prime minister since David Ben-Gurion in 1948. It is unclear at the moment what effect this turn of events could have on several important issues identified as essential by Netanyahu, including the peace process, a new election law marginalizing small political parties, military service for Orthodox yeshiva students, the evacuation of settlements ruled illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court, and the threat from Iran.

The two men struck a deal early Tuesday morning unbeknownst to several Knesset members preparing for an all night session to dissolve the legislative body in preparation for the elections. The gossip about a deal started around 1:00 AM when a security guard told someone he saw Netanyahu and Mofaz on the Knesset compound. The tired Knesset members in the cafeteria were abuzz as rumors swirled. At 2:00 AM, members of Likud, Kadima and Labor parties finally assembled in a room where Netanyahu informed them of the deal.

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon formed the center-left Kadima party after splitting from Likud over negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and the disengagement plan in 2005. In 2006, Sharon suffered a stroke leaving him permanently incapacitated and his nascent party with an improbable future. The party continued under Ehud Olmert until he left the party in 2008. Tzipi Livni won a subsequent leadership election and helped Kadima win the most seats in the 2009 elections. She was unable to turn the victory into a coalition strong enough to form a government and Netanyahu became prime minister. During her time as the Knesset opposition leader, Livni earned a reputation for not challenging Netanyahu effectively. In April, Kadima voters ousted Livni from the top spot and elected Shaul Mofaz to lead the opposition party.

Mofaz was born in Tehran exactly six months after Israel declared independence. Nine years later his family immigrated to the Jewish homeland. Mofaz stirs up mixed reactions from the left and right. He has several credentials that appeal to right-wing Israelis. He served in one of the Israeli military’s elite units during several wars…He was the military chief of staff and later defense minister during the Second Intifada. He received criticism for his tough tactics including the devastating Jenin offensive and the demolition of Palestinian homes as punishment. In 2005, he entered politics as a member of Likud but switched to Kadima a month later. Recognizing that the occupation presents a security threat to Israel, he supports negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. In 2009, he devised a plan for a peace agreement that initially gives Palestinians 60 percent of the West Bank and then negotiates the rest with equal land swaps. After his election to Kadima spot in April, Mofaz told The New York Times’ Ethan Bronner, “I intend to replace Netanyahu. I will not join his government.” He went even further on his Facebook page in March, writing, “Listen up: I won't join Bibi's government…This is a bad and failed government and Kadima under my leadership will replace it in the next elections. Is that clear enough?”

Why Now?

Last week, the CMEP bulletin explained that Netanyahu planned to call for elections in hopes of modifying his coalition and getting more leeway when dealing with settler and ultra-Orthodox factions in his government. The deal with Kadima can solve those same problems. Netanyahu summed it up best, telling reporters, “I realized that it was possible to restore stability without holding elections.”

The ultra-Orthodox haredim parties Shas and United Torah Judaism were constraining Netanyahu’s ability to reform the controversial Tal Law that currently exempts Orthodox yeshiva students from performing military service. In February, the Supreme Court ruled the law is illegal because it gives the haredim preferential treatment and the court gave the government until August to repeal or replace it. Kadima and another secular coalition party Yisrael Beiteinu want to make the service mandatory for everyone. Now Netanyahu can find a more equitable solution since Shas and United Torah Judaism cannot topple the government by withdrawing.

The Supreme Court set another deadline that put Netanyahu between a rock and a hard place. In September 2011, the court ordered the government to evict settlers from five permanent buildings in the Ulpana neighborhood and the government agreed to do so by May 1, 2012. The potential evictions divided the coalition. Right wing Likud members insist the Knesset pass legislation to circumvent the order after the court rejected the state’s request to reconsider the decision on Monday, a week after the deadline passed. During the hearing, the justices imposed a July 1 deadline for the buildings’ demolition. Netanyahu hopes to find a legal solution to keep the settlers in place but with the addition of Mofaz and Kadima, he would have the support to raze the buildings if he decides to go that route.


Benjamin Netanyahu: This proves Netanyahu is the king of Israeli politics. With 94 seats, he has room to maneuver on the Tal Law, settlement outposts, election reform and peace without the even more right-wing politicians holding his government hostage if he chooses. The way things stand now, Netanyahu will be prime minister until 2013 and if he wins again, he could still be in office in 2018.

Shaul Mofaz and Kadima Politicians: The deal gives Mofaz and Kadima more influence in the government in the short term. Under the deal, Mofaz will be vice prime minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet and more Kadima members may become ministers in the future. Polls indicated that Kadima would not fair well in the September 4 elections, probably only retaining 10 of their 28 seats. Now those Knesset members can relax knowing their job is likely safe until at least 2013. If the settler and ultra-Orthodox parties jump ship, Kadima members will likely gain the vacant ministry positions in the cabinet.


The Kadima Party: Since Sharon and other Likud members broke away and formed Kadima in 2005, Likud’s politics have shifted further to the right. Bringing Kadima politicians back into Likud  could shift the balance of power back to the moderates. The deal has also damaged the party’s credibility. One Israeli analyst said the deal is a “complete capitulation” and “the beginning of the end for Kadima.” Already, a Kadima official has quit the party. Haim Ramon told Ynet that, “From an ideological standpoint, Kadima no longer exists for me…Kadima has reverted to being Likud. Many (members) have wanted this to happen the whole time. They voted out Tzipi Livni.”

Opposition: Before this deal, the opposition to Netanyahu’s government had 54 seats spread amongst seven parties. Now, there are only 26. This is not even enough to call a special session of the Knesset to force the prime minister to defend his policies. Chairwoman for the Labor party, Shelly Yachimovich, is now the official opposition leader and has her work cut out for her. She has already taken a firm stance against the new coalition, calling it an “alliance of cowards.” However the opposition’s loss could be temporary. Many are speculating that Tzipi Livni could make a dramatic return to politics by forming her own party with at least five possible Kadima defectors who disagree with the shift to the right. If the five find two more members, they can form a new faction and receive funding. It would only take a party of nine members to take the opposition from Yachimovich and Labor.

Ultra-Orthodox: The ultra-Orthodox haredim parties Shas and United Torah Judaism are typically the king makers in Israeli politics. Before the agreement, they stood in the way of Netanyahu’s ability to reform the Tal Law in order to protect the haradim’s narrow interests. Exempting them from sharing the burden of military service while the government subsidizes most of the 60 percent who are unemployed makes secular Israelis uneasy. Now that secular parties hold 70 of the 94 seats in the coalition, the ultra-Orthodox are no longer the lynchpin and their influence is waning.

Time Will Tell…

The Peace Process: For those who intensely focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can be hard to believe that the peace process is not always front and center in Israeli politics. Domestic squabbles provided the impetus for the agreement, but peace is not irrelevant. Since taking office in 2009, Netanyahu has not shown any real initiative to revive negotiations but the fresh mandate could give him opportunities to pursue that goal. If a peace deal came to fruition, the broad coalition could help him sell it to the public. He may be out of excuses to avoid negotiations now that he does not have to mollify the right wing and ultra-Orthodox elements in the coalition. President Obama and other international leaders also have a choice. Knowing Netanyahu has flexibility, it could be the perfect time to make a more concerted push for peace. Like many of the other issues facing Israel, it is now up to Netanyahu to decide what direction he wants to take the country.

Many have noted that just prior to the 1967 War, a similar consolidation of Israeli governance took place, speculating that this may augur a movement toward a strike on Iran in the near term. Given the background and track record of a key figure in the rearrangement -- Shaul Mofaz, who has spoken against the idea of a strike -- the opposite could also be true. As the CMEP writer said, time will tell....

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