(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/05/netanyahu.gif)So Israel has a new mega-coalition of 94 out of 120 Knesset members. The news early Tuesday morning stunned a country that was already in elections mode for a presumed September 4 contest. No pundit foresaw the mega-coalition or had an inside track on it.
For both of the main protagonists in the deal—Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz—it makes eminent sense. While all polls showed Netanyahu easily emerging triumphant again from the putative elections, the deal saves him—and the country—the trouble and debilities of having to prepare for them, not to mention prolonged coalition negotiations once the results would have been in.
As for Mofaz—who wrested leadership of Kadima from Tzipi Livni in a primary less than two months ago—the polls showed his party plummeting, had elections been held, from its current 28 seats to about a dozen. While Kadima’s fate in the October 2013 (when Netanyahu’s four-year term runs out) elections will not necessarily be better, Mofaz—whom the deal makes deputy prime minister and member of the Forum of Eight (now nine) ministers, Israel’s highest policymaking body—gets a chance to make more of an impact on a public never particularly impressed with him.
But apart from Netanyahu and Mofaz, the deal—by creating a massive coalition immune to extortionate pressures by small parties—holds great potential for the country.
For two of Israel’s most intractable problems—refusal of military or national service by most of its growing ultra-Orthodox population, and dysfunctionalities of its parliamentary system—solutions are now eminently possible. In their joint press conference on Tuesday, Netanyahu and Mofaz pledged that the new coalition would tackle these issues without offering any specifics.
The problems are indeed complex. The draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox, which are contingent on yeshiva study, not only sow bitterness among the army-serving public but lead to large-scale unemployment among ultra-Orthodox men and a growing, worrisome drain on the economy. To date, ultra-Orthodox parties in fragile coalitions have prevented possible solutions. For the mega-coalition, though, the path appears clear to legislating some sort of mandatory service and remedying this longstanding malady.
This being linked, of course, to the issue of a parliamentary system that allows small parties of various—not just ultra-Orthodox—descriptions to proliferate and wield disproportionate influence. Again, the new coalition stands a real chance to cure the illness. Raising the electoral threshold and introducing regional elections are two often-mentioned ideas. Israel could emerge as a better-functioning, more representational democracy with much more stable governments.
But serious as some of Israel’s domestic problems are, they are overshadowed by the existential threat of a nuclear Iran, and it’s in that regard that the new coalition most significantly enhances Netanyahu’s status.
It does so, for one thing, by adding Mofaz—a former chief of staff and defense minister, and of Iranian background to boot—to the top governmental echelon. Netanyahu says he’s consulted with Mofaz on Iran for years. And while Mofaz—noted as a politician for his flip-flops including a good deal of Bibi-bashing—hasn’t always been consistent on the Iranian issue, he said in April that
allowing Iran to obtain even a civilian nuclear capability would change the balance of power in the Middle East…. If we see Iran getting closer to a military nuclear capability and the US acting against its own interest and allowing a sword on our neck, I will be the first to support Israel taking action.
And more generally, the mega-coalition strengthens Netanyahu’s hand in the international arena by making it unmistakably clear that the country is behind him. That was already evident on Wednesday when Netanyahu—together with Mofaz, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman—unequivocally told EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Jerusalem that nothing short of a total cessation of Iran’s uranium enrichment is acceptable to Israel. No longer will the voices of disgruntled ex-Israeli officials, or New York Times headlines trumpeting supposed Israeli dissension on Iran, carry any weight.
It should now be clear that, however Bibi-bashing may be a sport among carping Israelis, world leaders, Israel-bashing American Jews like Thomas Friedman and Peter Beinart, and the like, the Israeli people as a whole appreciate a leader who has bolstered and stabilized Israel’s economy, thrown Palestinian rejectionism into sharp relief, and generally maintained the country’s—albeit precarious—security. Bibi-bashing won’t cut it anymore. Netanyahu represents Israel and now has the strongest mandate possible to do whatever needs to be done.
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