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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - May 14, 2012

mofazanyahu186x140.jpgNetanyahu's last-minute unity government

Alpher discusses why PM Netanyahu reversed himself last week at the last minute, canceled the September 4 general election, and brought Kadima into a broad unity government, and what do he and Mofaz stand to gain or lose.
Q. Why did PM Netanyahu reverse himself last week at the last minute, cancel the September 4 general election, and bring Kadima into a broad unity government?

A. I sat down the day after this surprise "flip-flop" and tried to list Netanyahu's presumed reasons as well as those of Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz. Then I listed the risks or drawbacks of the move for each. What I discovered is that, for Netanyahu, the benefits are far more numerous than the risks, whereas for Mofaz, benefits and risks are about equal. I don't believe in quantitative analysis of political and strategic issues, but I nevertheless found this significant.

Q. Let's begin with Netanyahu: what does he have to gain by avoiding elections and expanding his coalition?

A. At the political (as opposed to substantive) level, we begin by recalling that a coalition that comprises Kadima was Netanyahu's offer to Tzipi Livni immediately after the 2009 elections. In other words, the notion of a broad center-right coalition is not new to Netanyahu's thinking. But in 2009, Netanyahu refused to bend to Livni's demands (Kadima commanded 28 mandates compared to Likud's 27), which included rotation of the premiership and two of the three top ministries (foreign affairs, defense and finance) in Kadima's hands. Now he has brought Kadima in at a rock-bottom price: a deputy premiership and, if and when a right-wing or ultra-orthodox party leaves the coalition, a few minor ministries.

By bringing in Kadima, Netanyahu has not only achieved a right-center balance in his coalition that allows him better to play one side off against the other. He has also neutralized, at least temporarily, the influence of a hawkish settler population that has, in recent years, joined Likud in growing numbers and may have been worrying Netanyahu with regard to forming his coalition after elections. This points, incidentally, to a possible future fruit of this union--an aspiration Netanyahu has never hidden: bringing more than 50 percent of Kadima who are former Likudniks back into the Likud fold and effectively dissolving Kadima.

With this coalition, Netanyahu is also better equipped to clip the wings of Labor's Shelly Yacimovich, who now heads the Knesset's miniscule opposition of 26 members of Knesset, and Yair Lapid, whose nascent centrist challenge now has to be mothballed. He has a chance of going down in history as the first prime minister to serve out his/her entire term in decades. And he has shown he can still maintain political control through surprise and manipulation.

Q. And at the substantive level, what did Netanyahu gain?

A. Four urgent challenges that threatened to overshadow and complicate Netanyahu's reelection bid have now presumably become more manageable with elections postponed and Kadima in the coalition. One is the High Court's latest ruling that 30 family dwellings in the Ulpana neighborhood of Bet El be dismantled by July 1. Implementing that decision could have cost Netanyahu considerable right-wing support in elections. Legislating to bypass it, as some on the right advocate, is highly problematic ethically and constitutionally. Netanyahu and Mofaz have indicated they intend to "study the issue carefully". Whatever they decide will be easier for Netanyahu to manage politically with Mofaz by his side.

A second urgent challenge involves the issue of universal national service. By cancelling elections, Netanyahu at least temporarily neutralized efforts by his principal rival on the right, Yisrael Beitenu, to make universal service its electoral flagship. He and Mofaz are committed to deal with it through legislation in the months ahead as one of the new coalition's primary objectives. It remains to be seen how far either will go in angering the ultra-orthodox parties whose votes could well be needed to form the next coalition.

A third challenge is that posed by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's militant position regarding Iran's nuclear project. Unless Mofaz has lost all backbone and integrity--which no one can rule out following his zigzags concerning Netanyahu (within two days, from "liar" to coalition buddy)--a preemptive Israeli attack on Iran is less likely in the near term, because Mofaz has been an outspoken opponent of a preventive war and supporter of Netanyahu's security critics. Indeed, one implication of Netanyahu's sudden reversal of course is that he and Barak were apparently more affected by the criticism regarding their Iran policy than they acknowledged, and this is one of the reasons they brought in Mofaz.

On the other hand if, a year from now, sanctions and negotiations have failed completely, Netanyahu and Barak might persuade Mofaz to go along with an attack. When carried out by a broad and large coalition, it would be easier to defend politically and internationally.

The fourth issue affected by the advent of this coalition is the economy and the budget. A lot of indicators point to an economic downturn in the months ahead; this would have weighed heavily on Netanyahu's election campaign this summer. Now, with a huge coalition, he can pass a tough budget and deal with this summer's anticipated social justice protests without handing out election favors. By election time in October-November 2013, Israel will be nearing independence in energy production with a promising outlook for natural gas exports. Netanyahu, after all, prides himself on his stewardship of the Israeli economy in recent years.

Q. So what's on your list of drawbacks for Netanyahu in this move?

A. If, as I would argue, all other things being equal this is emphatically not a "war cabinet", what is the justification for forming the fifth largest coalition in Israeli political history? Earlier governments of national unity were formed to make war, as in 1967, or deal with hyper-inflation, as in the mid-1980s. This coalition appears to have been formed to deal with the personal political issues of Netanyahu, Mofaz, and the latter's Kadima members of Knesset who feared losing their jobs by losing an election. Barak, who is credited with initiating and brokering the early phases of secret Netanyahu-Mofaz coalition negotiations over the past two weeks, was also involved at least to some extent due to concern lest elections eliminate his Atzmaut faction, and is assumed to be pushing for Netanyahu to invite both Atzmaut and Kadima into a re-"centered" Likud prior to the next elections.

But for now all three, Netanyahu, Mofaz and Barak, have an ongoing problem explaining to the public that their huge coalition and their sudden postponement of elections are not simply the product of cynicism and opportunism. If, in the coming months, the coalition fails to act really decisively on the four issues outlined above, its members will lose additional traction with voters, while Yacimovich, Lapid and perhaps a resurgent Tzipi Livni (currently waiting in the wings and in close touch with disenchanted moderate Kadima MKs) register gains.

Then too, one of Netanyahu's motives in initiating early elections was, in my analysis, his desire to reinforce his electoral mandate before a reelected Barack Obama can appeal over his head to the Israeli public regarding the Palestinian issue. By abandoning that option, Netanyahu has indeed set himself up for such pressure next year--if, in fact, Obama is reelected and chooses to redouble his efforts on the Palestinian issue. Imagine, for example, Kadima walking out of the coalition in early 2013 and probably precipitating elections precisely in such circumstances.

Many international observers are choosing to read the Netanyahu-Mofaz partnership as a new Israeli beginning in peacemaking with the Palestinians. This is at least temporarily good for Israel's image. Yet I doubt Netanyahu will betray his settler supporters and his own ideological inclinations by adopting positions congenial to genuine progress. The entire thrust of the new partnership points to, at most, electoral reform and universal service legislation in the year ahead, not a peace breakthrough.

Q. What does Mofaz gain?

A. Prior to last week's sudden cancellation of September elections, all the polls indicated that Kadima under Mofaz was in danger of radical downsizing. Now the party and its new leader have gained a reprieve in which to upgrade their image. Livni also left Kadima deeply in debt, a factor that would have weighed heavily on its capacity to wage an effective election campaign.

Now, if Mofaz and his party are truly able to exercise some influence, they will be able to take credit for Israeli restraint regarding Iran, moderation toward the Palestinians, and legislation regarding universal national service and electoral reform. In a kind of vicious circle syndrome, this may be difficult without key ministries; on the other hand, success with this agenda would drive the ultra-orthodox and far right out of the coalition and hand Kadima ministries with which to exercise influence.

Q. And what could Mofaz lose?

A. This maneuver has portrayed Mofaz as cynical and spineless, selling his party cheap out of panic. Netanyahu, never one to take gratuitous chances, could be forgiven for now taking him for granted, not truly advancing a moderate secular reform agenda, and dooming Kadima to political disgrace.

Netanyahu is now likely to begin maneuvering to bring back to the Likud most of those who left it in 2005 with Ariel Sharon and helped form Kadima. With their party in the electoral doghouse, the Kadima right-wingers may be easy pickings. On the other hand, under a law passed by the previous Netanyahu government in an earlier attempt to win back Mofaz and others from Kadima, seven or more Kadima MKs can now opt to leave the party and the coalition and form a new Knesset faction, thereby hastening the demise of Kadima as it goes the way of earlier centrist political experiments.

Q. To sum up. . . 

A. This huge new coalition has a good chance to postpone elections for at least a year, though it may change in composition in the months ahead. An attack on Iran is a bit less likely thanks to Mofaz. A genuine peace process is also not likely, despite Mofaz. A serious and successful effort at electoral reform and legislating significant universal national service will earn coalition members valuable points with the electorate. On the other hand, there are plenty of drawbacks and weaknesses in this coalition for a determined political opposition to build on.