Editorial: Man in the Mirror

What will the surprising and sudden deal struck between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Kadima Party to expand the ruling coalition mean for the coming months?

According to Netanyahu, it will help him focus on successfully executing four items on his agenda until the natural election cycle comes due in 2013. The four are replacing the Tal Law; passing a budget; changing government structure to maximize the potential for full-length terms and not ongoing dissolutions of the Knesset before elections would naturally occur; and progress in the peace process.

One of the pressing concerns was replacing the Tal Law, which governed how and when Haredim will serve in the army until it was struck down by the Supreme Court. The summer deadline imposed by the court would have passed with no action had the government been dissolved and new elections called. The deal made Monday between Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz eliminates that possibility, but the substance of a new law must still be negotiated.

Under the arrangement, Kadima is charged with leading the committee to craft a new law. Already Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu party, had proposed a bill requiring all 18-year-old men to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces or perform civilian service, with very limited exceptions for 1,000 yeshiva students and the same number of artists and athletes. With the Knesset now expected to remain intact, a negotiated solution appears within sight prior to the court’s Aug. 1 deadline, which would be a good thing indeed.

The coalition may also bring a more comprehensive alliance regarding the peace process with the Palestinians, though how that will come about remains to be seen. Will the far right-wing parties, whose pull on Netanyahu politically has been quite strong without Kadima in the coalition, be forced to a more conciliatory position on engaging talks and on elements of those talks such as the treatment of illegal settlement expansions? Or will Kadima and Mofaz simply be drawn into the paradigm that already exists without the ability to push the agenda to a more centrist focus?

No doubt the broader coalition, which now will sit at 90 MKs, also will play a role in the government’s treatment of the Iran situation. This pot has started to boil beyond a simmer, what with Iran inching closer to nuclear capability, but there’s also signs that the European Union’s upcoming boycott of Iranian oil, coupled with weak Iranian economy and currency, may buy more time in advance of any unilateral Israeli military conduct. Does adding Kadima signify a more temperate response, or a greater emboldenment fortified by a broader coalition? As time draws short, Bibi certainly knows that having a wider constituency in support of any action will provide him with more and better political cover.

The announcement of the coalition was not taken well in all circles. Some of Bibi’s Likud teammates, still smarting from the defection of Kadima in the first place and the harshly confrontational style of its preceding leader, Tzipi Livni, are not altogether pleased. Nor is new Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, who decried the political deal and directed her anger at Mofaz as betraying his calls for social equality by joining with the rightist Likudniks.

Yachimovich’s main issue, however, is that her opposition coalition will be down to only 26 seats in the Knesset. Had early elections been held, Labor was expected to gather 18 seats, which would have made it the second largest party bloc behind Likud, and likely to build a more substantial opposition grouping of parties.

Netanyahu’s hope may well be that if Likud and Kadima can find enough center-right ground, the latter comes home to its origins and disbands, rejoining Likud in both name and substance and forging a dominant and probably impenetrable lead for the near future in Knesset elections. If that happens, then it will be easy to understand why Yachimovich is so angry—not only will Labor be left out in the cold as both unneeded and ineffectual, but the new alignment will empower Bibi to pick and choose his policies without need of any other party partners.

Such a result, were it come to pass in the 2013 elections, would make him more powerful than most leaders in parliamentary governments typically become, and could allow him to claim a mandate for whichever path he might choose on matters both domestic and international. So if you ever wondered which is the more apt description of Netanyahu—political pragmatist or focused visionary—the next year or two may present clues that heretofore have not been so clearly placed into evidence.