Netanyahu’s new broad unity coalition a week later: winners and losers

It’s been more than a week since Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a staggeringly unexpected coalition with his main opposition, Kadima.

Netanyahu’s prior coalition in the Knesset (Israeli’s 120-seat parliament) already included his own hawkish Likud Party (27 seats), the populist, nationalist and secular Yisrael Beiteinu (15 seats), whose leader Avigdor Lieberman has served as Israel’s deputy prime minister and its minister of foreign affairs, several haredim, ultra-orthodox parties, the largest of which is Shas (11 seats), and Independence (5 seats), a breakaway segment of former Labor Party members loyal to defense minister and former prime minister Ehud Barak.

In the 2009 election, Kadima — the party, which means ‘forward’ in Hebrew, was founded by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 with members of the Labor Party to support Sharon’s disengagement plan and was the party of his successor, Ehud Olmert — actually won a greater number of seats (28 seats) under leader Tzipi Livni.

The deal leaves the Labor Party, with its eight seats, as the primary opposition in the Knesset.

Kadima’s March 2012 leadership election saw Livni defeated by Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister under Sharon.  It took Mofaz, who once called Netanyahu a “liar” and pledged not to join a Netanyahu government, only two months to join the Netanyahu government, as acting vice prime minister, thereby giving Netanyahu a 94-seat coalition, the widest such Israeli government in 28 years.

Why the coalition, just 24 hours after Netanyahu had called for early elections?

Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for The Atlantic, suggested seven must-read reasons last week, ranging from a potential strike on Iran to giving Netanyahu the centrist support to negotiate with the Palestinians to allowing Netanyahu and Lieberman to push forward with a reform of the Tal Law to provide an alternative form of national service for currently-exempt ultraorthodox Israelis from the two-year military service requirement.

For Kadima, the answer is simple: “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Whatever the reason, the conventional wisdom has been fairly standard across the board:
  • It’s a masterstroke for Netanyahu, who will now have another year and a half as prime minister with the widest government possible.
  • It’s nearly a masterstroke for Mofaz and Kadima, which polls suggested would have lost many seats in a September election.
  • It’s a good deal for Barak, whose Independence slate might not have even returned to the Knesset in early elections, and whose support Netanyahu has always coveted.
  • It’s decent news for the haredim parties, which did not want elections and which can now, having been part of the government for three years, can protest any reforms to the Tal Law, leave the government, and have a pertinent campaign issue in 2013.
  • It’s bad news for Labor under its new leader Shelly Yachimovich, as it would have been the main winner in early elections — taking many of the seats Kadima was set to lose.
  • It’s also bad news for Yair Lapid, the new force in Israeli politics whose new political party / vehicle Yesh Atid (‘There is a Future’) will now be shut out of the Knesset for at least 18 more months, in which time his momentum may stall.
  • It’s horrible news for Livni, who quit the Knesset in early May, days before the unity deal was announced. 
I’m not so sure the conventional wisdom, however, will hold up over the long run — or even the medium run, as elections still must be held by October 2013.
Any revision of the Tal Law could empower haredim parties at the expense of the major secular parties — and the haredim parties are already boycotting and other parties in the Knesset are already fighting over the makeup of the committee to revise the Tal Law.  If those discussions end acrimoniously, that could in itself destroy the unity coalition.
Furthermore, no one knows how a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be received — within Israel, within Iran, by the United States or throughout the world.  And the likelihood of Netanyahu making any progress on the Palestinian peace process in the next 18 months does not seem appreciably higher today than it did last week.
But it gives the Israeli electorate time to sour on the unity coalition and the manner in which it was formed. Exhibit A:

You weren’t born yesterday. The backroom agreement between Netanyahu and Mofaz wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. It’s just one symptom of an increasingly vicious disease eating at Israel’s democratic institutions, a disease that has transformed Knesset members into the peons of political and business interest groups, leaving them indifferent to the will of the electorate.

It also gives the Israeli opposition time to regroup, and it leaves the legitimacy of opposition to Yair Lapid, former Kadima leader Livni, the leftist Meretz party (with just 3 seats itself in the Knesset) and what remains of the Labor Party — the home of Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin.

Livni, who had refused to join a coalition with Netanyahu from the 2009 general election onward, is already primed from outside the Knesset, and possibly outside of Kadima, to become the loudest moral voice of opposition to Netanyahu if Kadima breaks apart over the unity coalition.
Given the fluidity of Israeli party politics over the last decade, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the coalition allows Livni, Lapid and Yachimovich an opportunity to pull together in a united front of opposition in advance of October 2013, which would be much more threatening to Netanyahu in the long run — his ability to govern Israel over the past three years has been in his ability to divide his opposition and co-opt enough of his opposition as allies to remain in power.

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