The crisis facing the Kadima party is the explanation most often given for the creation of a government of national unity in Israel. With the surprise announcement that the party with the largest number of Knesset members would move from the opposition into the government, newly elected Kadima head Shaul Mofaz has either set the foundation for his party’s renewal or ensured its demise. Early elections would have seriously weakened Kadima — punishment for its lackluster performance in the opposition under his predecessor, Tzipi Livni. Polls suggested Kadima would drop from its current 28 seats to 10. Kadima’s problems were also evident in the party primary. Mofaz won with 62% of votes cast, but only about 35% of Kadima members voted. Joining the government and delaying the elections until October 2013 gives Kadima desperately needed time to rebuild its constituency. Alternatively, the move may irretrievably splinter the party
Another possible reason for widening the coalition — one vehemently denied to AJC by a key Netanyahu supporter — is the predicament the prime minister faces in this own Likud party. In the Likud primaries of January 2012, 63,000 voters — slightly less than half of registered Likud members — took the time to cast their ballots. Of these, about 23% supported the far-right candidate Moshe Feiglin. In other words, Netanyahu’s reelection as the party’s candidate for prime minister was based on only about 40% of members. Another sign of discontent among right-wing Likud activists came in early May, when Netanyahu was forced to contest a secret ballot for the position of head of the Likud central committee.
The actual straw that broke the camel’s back was a threat by the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party to bring down the government over its demand to end the army exemption of yeshiva students. This was symptomatic of a more general danger of political blackmail by the small parties of the coalition in the final year and a half of its term. Given the grumblings in the right flank of Likud and the willingness of Mofaz to cooperate, Netanyahu evidently decided he had little to gain and perhaps much to lose from early elections.
Announcing the new coalition, Netanyahu defined four major tasks: replacing the Tal Law, whose military exemptions for yeshiva students had been invalidated by the Supreme Court, with a structure for ensuring that everyone will do military or civilian national service; passing a “responsible budget” that acknowledges and corrects the economic inequities that brought hundreds of thousands to demonstrate last summer; changing the system of governance to end the disproportionate power of small parties; and reinvigorating the peace process with the Palestinians. The first three goals are readily measurable: either the Tal Law will be replaced, the budget passed, and the system of governance changed, or they won’t. But the final goal is amorphous. What will constitute “reinvigoration” of the moribund negotiations? Israeli voters have such low expectations in this arena that any slight progress might qualify.
The prime minister’s statement ignored the Iranian threat, and commentators had a field day with that lacuna. Responses ran from hysterical (some in the Arab press termed this a “war cabinet”) to a much more relaxed stance, based on Mofaz’s known evaluation that Israel still has about two years before the Iranians develop nuclear weapons capacity.
Kadima’s presence in the government may help to address the public’s perception of Israel’s Iran policy. The previous, narrower coalition had Netanyahu and Barak playing the “bad cop” before the world, as both men went to great lengths to stress that an Iranian atomic bomb was intolerable for Israel, and that international indecision could force Israel to act unilaterally. Israelis in fact do not look forward to a war with Iran and want to be sure that if it happens it is truly a last resort. A coalition with Kadima broadens the political base for decision-making, giving the public greater confidence in the government to make life and death decisions.
Can the new government hold together until the October 2013 elections? 94 MKs make for a very large coalition. Replacing one of the most right-wing coalitions in Israel’s history, it is certainly more representative and centrist. However, will the ultra-Orthodox parties remain if the Tal Law is replaced with a reform promising a more equitable distribution of the burden of national service, as so many in Israel (and many supporters of Israel in the Jewish Diaspora, like AJC) would like to see? Will right-wing, religious and largely settler HaBayit HaYehudi stay if a significant territorial withdrawal is offered to the Palestinians? Will any small party stay if the coalition seeks to raise the threshold for election to the Knesset above its current 2%? In general, can the religious nationalists, secular liberals, peace-processors and peace-process-opponents, economic liberals and economic centralists go the distance together and carry out Netanyahu’s ambitious four goals? The Israeli public will not have much patience if they see business as usual. And they will be watching.