Unity Government in Israel: Significance and Prospects

Ibrahim Abdel Kareem: Unity Government in Israel: Significance and Prospects

  • 11 June 2012

In the second week of May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Shaul Mofaz called off early elections and forged an agreement that brought the right-wing Kadima Party (with 28 seats in the Knesset) into the coalition government. According to this agreement, Shaul Mofaz (leader of Kadima) was made the Deputy Prime Minister and minister without portfolio. There is also a verbal understanding that other ministers from the Kadima party could be appointed to the cabinet later on. On the day of the agreement, Mofaz justified his party’s joining the coalition by saying that the agreement was not made for the sake of gaining ministerial positions but to achieve important Israeli goals.

At its first meeting on May 13, the new broad-based government detailed its four main priorities: amendment to the ‘Tal Law’ (for the conscription of ultra-orthodox Jews ‘the Haredis’), change to the mode of governance, revision of the budget, and promotion of the peace process. To this end, Netanyahu and Mofaz agreed to designate teams for formulating proposals.

It is important to study the implications of this alliance, as it has very unique features. For the first time in Israel’s political history, a coalition government is holding 94 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Moreover, the agreement on which this coalition is based would have far-reaching and revolutionary ramifications. With this agreement, a major right-wing bloc has emerged on Israel’s political scene that could forestall the development of a viable opposition. It would be very difficult to tilt the political balance against this huge bloc, even if the opposition is successful in splitting its constituents. In fact, members of the Kadima bloc have already rushed to introduce a so-called ‘confinement bill’ to avert any split in this bloc after signs of rebellion surfaced when five of its members opposed the Mofaz move.

Reacting to this new alignment, Yair Lapid (chairman of the new Yesh Atid Party) praised the Kadima Party for “it came back to be what it has actually always has been, which is part of the Likud,” and even said that “the last person who had such a coalition was Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania.” In contrast, Kadima drew flak over this move from other opposition leaders. Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich described the deal as “an alliance of cowards and the most ridiculous and ludicrous zigzag in Israeli political history”. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (of the Labour Party) blasted Mofaz by saying: “You’ve sold your soul to the devil,” referring to Netanyahu.

Some influential party figures in Kadima also criticized Mofaz’s move, calling it an ‘opportunistic game’. However, the most notable response has come from the Israeli street; a public opinion poll conducted by the Knesset Channel shows that Shaul Mofaz and his group in Kadima may not succeed in the upcoming elections.

Yet it is important to note the dimensions of this development at both the internal and external fronts. Israel has had 32 governments in the 64 years of its establishment, which gives a two-year term for each government on average. It is for this reason that we hear calls for certain amendments that would ensure consolidation of government at the expense of representation of a wide array of political parties. It has also been suggested that electoral regulations and limits be raised and municipal elections be held simultaneously with general elections so that party pressures on the prime minister are eased.

The ongoing debate on these issues suggests that the unity government could initiate the process for such amendments. If the idea of changing the form of governance in Israel materializes, it could lead to the dissolution of many of Israel’s current parties, especially the small ones, and usher in the big political blocs—such as a centrist bloc, a right-wing bloc, an ultra-religious bloc, an Arab bloc, etc.

Another noteworthy aspect of this new alliance is that it has brought together three of Israel’s former chiefs of staff in the unity government: Ehud Barak, Moshe Ya’alon and Shaul Mofaz. Two of these leaders (Barak and Mofaz) have been Ministers of Defense, and all three have rich military experience and are also among the most radical figures. Therefore, the addition of Mofaz to the erstwhile Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman triumvirate, which was considered by many as a major threat to Israel’s present and future, has further worsened the situation.

It is also important to note that the new coalition is at variance with the traditions of the Israeli political system. It is dominated by an unruly, disparate, right-wing pack, controlled by leaders that are indifferent to the consequences of adventurism. This would inevitably be reflected in Israel’s attitude toward its perceived challenges. Prominent among these issues is Israel’s policy on Iran— with all its regional and international variables and its implicitly adversarial stance toward Syria and Hezbollah.

Here, two seemingly contradictory outcomes of this new alliance can be seen. The first pertains to the inclusion of Shaul Mofaz in the eight-minister security cabinet, which at least in theory would give strength to those leaders who are against attacking Iran in the present circumstances (such as Dan Meridor, Moshe Ya’alon, Benny Begin and Eli Yishai). However, by projecting a united front the decision-making team in Israel is sending out a message about the government’s strength to take decisions in tackling the Iranian issue aggressively as well as the ability to increase its pressure on the international stage.

The party to take immediate note of this sudden development has been the current US administration, especially President Barack Obama. The formation of this coalition suggests that even if the US President is elected to office for a second term in November he will be forced to work with a much bigger and stronger coalition forged by Netanyahu. It is for this reason that the Obama Administration asked for clarifications from Israel regarding the political need for forming a unity government, as part of the US desire to ensure continued coordination and understanding on various issues, particularly Iran. It seems the White House was informed and reassured about the new governmental structure and so it responded in a diplomatic way, emphasizing that the development will not lead to a change in Washington’s stance towards its ally, Israel.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian issue will be tackled by the unity government considering that both Netanyahu and Mofaz raised the problem of negotiations with Palestinians during the announcement of the coalition agreement. It seems likely that a consensus will be reached regarding the assignment of Mofaz with the task of making contacts with Palestinians in coordination with Netanyahu. It is possible that Netanyahu will request that his position on the Iranian issue be supported in exchange for his support to Mofaz on the Palestinian issue. Mofaz, in an interview to New York Times on April 7, spoke in old-fashioned Israeli doublespeak that the Palestinians must be granted 100 percent of all their territorial demands through a land swap. Mofaz believes that this can bring about a breakthrough on the issues of security, borders and Jerusalem.

Yet this view faces opposition from even among partners of the coalition, who could withdraw support from the government in case such solutions are put forward. Besides, this approach does not match with the provisions of a new proposal put forward by another coalition partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in his address to the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies of Tel Aviv University. That proposal calls for the “thinking of an interim agreement, and even unilateral actions, if negotiations with Palestinians fail”. The proposal was met with criticism by Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Several contentious issues could put strains on this new coalition government including questions related to Israeli settlements, negotiations with Palestinians, budgetary revision, amendment to ‘Tal Law,’ ongoing social and protest movements, etc.