Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stunned Israelis Tuesday morning with a political shocker. He convinced his largest opposition leader, Shaul Mofaz, to join his coalition, thus cancelling early elections scheduled for September.
Speaking to the media, Netanyahu said that the coalition agreement (called by some Israeli media a stink bomb) is good for the stability of his government and for Israel.
His new coalition partner, who will now become Israel’s first deputy prime minister, listed four areas of agreement as the basis for this partnership. The two parties will develop a replacement for the Tal Law that used to exempt religious students from the Israeli army; they will pass a new budget; Israel’s political system will be revamped and the new coalition is said to push ahead the peace process.
Mofaz, whose Kadima Party under Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert split from Likud and withdrew from Gaza, gave little specifics as to how the new coalition, which counts for 94 out of 120-Knesset members, will advance peace talks with the Palestinians. Some Israeli commentators indicated that the agreement was born in part because of the rise of radical right-wing elements in Netanyahu’s Likud Party.
With a large majority, some argue that Netanyahu will no longer be blackmailed by his radical foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, or by the religious parties and settlers.
There is no doubt that if he chooses to make serious concessions for peace, the new coalition will make his efforts easy, but the question is, does the Likud leader want to make these concessions? Or will his stable government allow him to more easily fend off pressure to do what is necessary for peace, say, freeze settlement activities or even temporarily concede control in areas C to the Palestinian Authority?
A look back to the past few years may help answer this question. Whenever the Israeli government was pressed to make concessions for peace, Netanyahu’s radical coalition partners, like Lieberman, threatened to bolt from the government. At those sensitive times, the then leader of the opposition Tzipi Livni repeatedly assured Netanyahu that her party was willing to provide a political safety net for the government if it wishes to make serious concessions for peace.
The supposedly radical Lieberman himself seemed to be more words than deeds. On more than one occasion he threatened to withdraw if some was decided, only to stay in the coalition after all.
Israel’s current leader will lead one of the largest coalition governments Israel has had. The Israeli public has made it clear that it does not like what happened because it smells too much of political opportunism rather than something done genuinely for the good of the country and for peace.
While most of the discussion regarding the motives behind the coalition agreement is focused inwards, one should not ignore the possibility that external issues might have contributed to this decision. Some analysts have pointed out that adding a former military commander who is of Iranian Jewish origin will strengthen Israel’s position towards Iran and its nuclear ambition.
One factor that has not been mentioned was the upcoming US election. While Netanyahu would be very happy if his friend, Mitt Romney, wins the upcoming November poll, he must be considering the strong possibility that Barack Obama will be in the White House for another four years. With that possibility, Netanyahu knows that Israel will be under strong pressure from its most important ally to make serious concessions for peace with the Palestinians. So while Netanyahu will now be less able to use Lieberman as an excuse, if push comes to shove, his strong government will be able to withstand any US and international pressure.
A large and stable government coalition has strong possibilities to make historic breakthroughs. However, this particular coalition created for opportunistic rather than principled reasons (despite claims to the contrary) is highly unlikely to take courageous steps for peace.