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New Israeli Coalition: Good for Israel, Good for Netanyahu, Good for Obama

In a surprise move late last night that confounded weeks of expert punditry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) announced the formation of a unity government. The Likud leader had been expected to call for early elections in September (rather than October 2013) before this news broke.

Via Meadia‘s telepathic capabilities are unfortunately limited, so we cannot tell readers what the leaders were thinking, but it is not hard to see the logic behind this development. Bibi wants to present a united political front to the US and the international community as he presses forward against Iran; he seeks greater coalition flexibility to deal with crucial (but underreported) domestic considerations like the battle to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the army and workforce, and the reduction of their subsidies. Meanwhile, in addition to sharing these concerns, Mofaz sought to avert electoral disaster, as polls showed his Kadima party heading for a nosedive in proposed early elections.

Students of Israeli history should not be surprised by this turn of events. The Jewish state has a tradition of broad-based centrist government during times of existential crisis, such as the build-up to the 1967 Six Day War. Parties tend to downplay their usual political differences in order to unite the country against a common foe. The Iranian nuclear threat most certainly qualifies as such an epochal event, as Netanyahu has often noted.

This grand coalition was perhaps a bit easier to cobble together than some of the earlier ones. Kadima split off from Likud under former premier Ariel Sharon, and the distance between the parties is not unbridgeable.

So the new government is a significant boon to both Netanyahu and Mofaz, as well as the State of Israel. But there is another unexpected beneficiary of this development: President Barack Obama.

This new centrist government removes one of the key stumbling blocks to the President’s diplomacy in the region: the conservative Israeli coalition. It is important to remember that this coalition was not Netanyahu’s first choice–after last elections, he sought to form a unity government with Kadima under now-deposed leader Tzipi Livni, but she refused to join unless she was given rotating premiership. Bibi then formed a government with a plethora of right-wing parties, as well as the left-leaning but greatly diminished Labor party under Ehud Barak.

This coalition was an uneasy one, and it came with high costs like installing the disreputable and often abrasive Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister. Netanyahu himself is no flaming dove on the Palestinian issue, but the nature of the coalition reduced his bargaining flexibility.

By contrast, the new centrist coalition relegates extreme parties to its fringe, increases Netanyahu’s maneuverability on everything from Iran to the economy to the peace process, and allows him to embark on much-needed electoral reform to reduce the influence on small extremist parties. But just as crucially, the new government will also put greater internal pressure on Netanyahu to deal with the Palestinians (Kadima and Mofaz are on record in support of a more conciliatory approach).

It is a mixed picture for Obama. On the one hand, this government may be a little easier to work with on Palestinian issues; on the other, it may be politically easier for the Israelis to launch an attack against Iran.

Keeping up the pressure against Iran, consulting with Israel as nuclear negotiations proceed, and looking for ways to start some kind of meaningful discussion between Israelis and Palestinians looks like the most fruitful course the US administration’s Middle East diplomacy could take right now. For President Obama, who has pretty much been locked into a tough policy approach to Iran without being able to get anything significant from the Israelis on negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, that looks like a step forward.

If he plays his cards well, and if he is lucky (always a vital component of successful policy moves in the Middle East), President Obama just might emerge as the victor in Israel’s election that never was.

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  • I don’t think this is quite right. Aside from 1967, Israel has not traditionally cobbled together unity governments to deal with existential crises, and it is also unclear that Israelis view Iran as an existential crisis anyway. Certainly Mofaz has indicated that he does not, and his position on Iran has been to criticize Netanyahu as irresponsible and reckless. I think you are certainly correct that it gives Bibi lots more flexibility on domestic issues, but the focus on Iran seems to me to be misplaced.

  • WigWag

    I’m not sure that Professor Mead gets this right; my guess is that Obama gains nothing from the new coalition agreement in Israel.

    Bibi is still calling the shots, and bringing Kadima into his government makes him stronger than ever. For the first two years of his Presidency, Obama’s goal was to isolate Netanyahu in the hope that he would be defeated. As it turns out, Netanyahu is riding high and it’s Obama who is struggling to hold on to his office.

    Bibi now has more room to maneuver than ever. As Professor Mead correctly points out, Lieberman loses influence as a result of this new agreement but the biggest loser is Shas, the ultraorthodox Sephardic party. Likud, Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu are all secular parties and undoubtedly the agreement they come up with about integrating the ultraorthodox into national service (military or otherwise) will infuriate Shas and its acolytes.

    By integrating Kadima, Netanyahu has brought into his coalition a man, Shaul Mofaz, who speaks Farsi and was born in Iran. His expertise about his country of origin and his support in case Israel decides to attack Iran will be invaluable.

    In terms of the Palestinian issue, it’s hard to see how bringing Kadima into the coalition changes anything. Netanyahu, Mofaz, Barak and even Lieberman all support a two state solution although with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Despite this, they all realize that given everything that’s happening in the Middle East, peace is a pipe dream, at least for the time being.

    Unlike Obama, they all realize that the main reason that peace is impossible is that whatever the good intentions of Fayad might be, and whatever the dissembling Abbas has to say, Palestinians don’t want a final peace settlement; what they want is an interim deal that brings them closer to wiping Israel off the map.

    The dimwitted President of the United States, still steeped in the ideology that he learned at the knee of Rashid Khalidi and Reverend Wright, refuses to understand that reality.

    It makes me laugh when politicos in the United States or Israel accuse Netanyahu of having a “messiah complex.” The person with the complex is the American President who thinks that the healing power of his rhetoric should be enough to bring the parties to a kum by ya moment.

    With his new coalition partners, Bibi is stronger than ever. No doubt, in his heart of hearts, he will be praying for his old friend and business partner, Mitt Romney to win the presidency. If he doesn’t, Bibi still gets the last laugh; he will be politically stronger than ever should he need to face down the credulous Obama.

    My only question is why the Republicans in the United States can’t find a standard bearer as smart, talented and eloquent as Bibi. Maybe when he finishes his term(s) as Prime Minister, the Republicans can entice his to be their presidential nominee.

  • Haim

    You’re joking. There’s not a slimmest chance that the new coalition will move towards Obama on the Palestinian front, because the people in Israel aren’t in a mood for such largesse. Kadima will completely disappear within the Likud – by pairing with the hated Netanyahu, Mofaz lost all support on the Left and feels no need to court it anymore. Anyway, this is the government for doing some internal reforms and confronting Iran. Peace? Fuggidaboutit.

  • disk on key

    I’m afraid you’re overestimating Bibi. What he has on his mind is his own term in office and his ability to keep things as they are (e.g., Barak as his closest partner – after an election he’d have to give Barak up and settle on a less accommodating partner) rather than any statesmanlike considerations. Don’t delude yourself about his caring two hoots about orthodox people dodging the military – they are his natural allies and the ones he’d pick first if he had any choice. On the whole, it’s a deal between two heavy opportunists, both with a caesarian worldview which parliamentary democracy is a nuisance.

  • Saul

    I don’t know how you can say “the nature of the coalition reduced his bargaining flexibility” with the Palestinians since the coalition members are exactly the same as those who joined Kadima in the previous government.

    It’s Abu Mazen who’s refused to negotiate, not the Israeli government.

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