Israeli politics: Can Binyamin Netanyahu do a somersault?

A POLITICAL shenanigan in the dead of night has changed the face of Israel’s government, could do the same to Israeli society, and might even breathe a bit of life into the long-moribund peace process with the Palestinians (see article).

The clandestine climax to a bizarre political drama came in the early hours of May 8th. The morning before, the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu had introduced a bill at cabinet to dissolve parliament and call a general election. After three years of stability, he explained, his ruling coalition was facing turbulence, and he preferred to win a new mandate from the nation. That afternoon, parliament duly passed the bill on first reading. The parties had all agreed on an election date: September 4th. The members made ready to finalise the legislation next morning and plunge into campaigning.

But unbeknownst to any of them, Mr Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, the head of the largest opposition party, Kadima, were secretly plotting a new “national unity” coalition. At 2.30am they drove to a sleepy parliament to sign their hush-hush accord.

Dawn brought general bemusement—and howls of outrage from opposition figures, who now face another year-and-a-half of unchallenged government led by Mr Netanyahu. Mr Mofaz was raucously reminded that he had promised “never” to serve under Mr Netanyahu, whom he had previously dubbed a liar. “We’re putting those things behind us and looking ahead,” Mr Mofaz blandly explained at a joint press conference with the prime minister, both men trying hard not to gloat.

If the early election had gone ahead, Kadima under Mr Mofaz would have suffered badly, according to all the pollsters. A new, middle-of-the-road and secular-minded group under a popular television broadcaster, Yair Lapid, threatened to erode its support. Having resigned from his influential job on the screen, Mr Lapid will now languish on the sidelines while Mr Mofaz, as deputy prime minister, will have a strong voice in government. Mr Mofaz’s Kadima has 28 seats in parliament to the 27 held by Mr Netanyahu’s lot, the Likud.

A key component of the deal between the two men will enrage the religious part of the ruling coalition, for they have pledged to put an end to the wholesale exemption of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) young men from serving in the army. The haredi parties, who have been Mr Netanyahu’s loyal allies, are girding for battle. Messrs Netanyahu and Mofaz will have the votes, as well as the public support, to legislate a fairer system in which everyone, Israeli Arabs included, must do some form of national service, military or civilian. But will they have the courage to take on the haredim, knowing that next time around they may need them again in a coalition?

To stiffen their courage, the prime minister and his new deputy have promised a second sweeping reform. “The parties pledge to change the present system of government and to establish a system that shores up stability…and enables an elected prime minister to serve out his term.” The language is vague but the intent is clear: to give big parties more power at the expense of the smaller ones. At present, for instance, a party needs only 2% of the total vote to get a seat in parliament, so Israeli governments are invariably hamstrung by the need to keep tiny parties on board ramshackle coalitions.

All the minnow parties, not only haredi, will vigorously oppose this. But if Likud and Kadima manage to push through both of these reforms they will have drastically altered Israeli politics and society. It would certainly benefit the taxpayers who now fund the haredi men’s widespread lifelong unemployment payments.

It is more debatable whether foreign policy will change. Mr Mofaz, a former army chief of staff, has been one of many Israeli military and intelligence men urging restraint towards Iran over its nuclear ambitions. He may counter the belligerence of Mr Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, on that score. But Mr Mofaz has not ruled out military action if diplomacy and sanctions fail. He could ultimately bolster a decision to attack.

On the Palestinian issue, it is a shade likelier that Mr Netanyahu will edge his government towards proper negotiations. Mr Mofaz has consistently criticised Mr Netanyahu’s lack of enthusiasm on this front. In 2009 Mr Mofaz proposed the immediate creation of a Palestinian state on some 60% of the West Bank, followed by negotiations over the remainder. He accepts, as Mr Netanyahu does not, the border before the war of 1967 as the basis for a final negotiated peace, with land swaps to cater for the large Israeli settlement blocks inside the West Bank.

Even if nothing of substance changes immediately, the rhetoric will change. There are people in Kadima deeply committed to the two-state solution. The party came into being to support and advocate unilateral withdrawal from the Palestinian territories in the absence of bilateral negotiations. Mr Mofaz proposes both withdrawal and negotiation. Mr Netanyahu will no longer be able to say he is hobbled by his right-religious coalition partners. Moreover, neither will he be inhibited by his ideologically hardline father, Ben-Zion, who died last month aged 102.

Nevertheless, the Israeli settlers on the West Bank remain a powerful force within Mr Netanyahu’s Likud. And it has never been clear whether the prime minister is a diehard ideologue or a clever populist who is happy to perform a somersault when it suits him.

World News Today

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