Articles & presentations
- Created on Friday, 25 May 2012 02:00
By the Afro-Middle East Centre
Even Israelis accustomed to the erratic nature of their political system, characterised by often-precarious coalition governments, were stunned to wake up to the news that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) had cancelled the early election he had only just called for. In a surprise move - at least to the public - on 8 May 2012, Netanyahu signed a coalition agreement with Shaul Mofaz (Kadima), who had not only previously called Netanyahu a 'liar' but had vowed never to enter into a coalition with the Prime Minister.
Although the agreement was presented as a means to ensure stability, it is seen more as political opportunism than being in the best interest of the country. Lacking even basic transparency it transpired that Netanyahu had entered into a secret agreement with the hawkish Mofaz, a former Minister of Defense and Chief of Staff, and the new leader of the centrist Kadima party. (Mofaz ousted Tzipi Livni from her position as head of the party in March this year). This agreement would see Kadima come on board the Netanyahu government's hard-line, right-wing coalition, and make Mofaz Deputy Prime Minister and Minister without Portfolio. In joining the ranks of Netanyahu's coalition, this move saw the coalition swell to ninety-four seats - giving it a comfortable two-thirds majority.
Implications for democracy
Despite speculation that the less hawkish Kadima's joining the coalition would temper the increasingly rightist direction that the Likud-led coalition had been taking, the formation of this coalition is perhaps more indicative of an increasing erosion of Israel's democratic space. With a flailing opposition bloc (Labour, Meretz and Palestinian parties), themselves fragmented, amounting to around twenty-six seats, Israel is without any real, vibrant opposition.
Arguably, considering that Netanyahu's government has increasingly proposed and passed anti-democratic bills and legislation, the new coalition's two-thirds majority is of particular concern as it could potentially give it the power to overturn the Basic Laws of Israel (as Israel is without a constitution, these laws form a key component of its constitutional law). The recent anti-democratic bills proposed and laws passed certainly do not bode well for those concerned that the coalition will take this direction.
In fact, in an increasing move against dissenting voices, even before the new über-coalition was announced and only shortly after the call for early elections, Member of Knesset, Danny Danon (Likud) looked to petition the Central Elections Committee to prevent Palestinian MK, Haneen Zoabi of the Palestinian Balad party from being able to run for her party in the nineteenth Knesset. Had early elections gone ahead, it is likely that the right-wing committee would have barred Zoabi or even Balad as a whole.
In what might be a further indication of the actual nature of this apparently watered-down right-wing coalition, twenty people were arrested, including two journalists, in a 1 000 person protest opposing the creation of the coalition – ostensibly due to not receiving police clearance to hold a protest.
The initial call for early elections
In a widely anticipated move, on 7 May 2012, Netanyahu called for early elections that were then set to take place on 4 September 2012 (as opposed to the planned date of October 2013). Netanyahu's position as prime minister was by no means under threat with opinion polls indicating that Likud would win at least thirty-one seats in the 120 seat parliament – comfortably making Likud leader in any coalition.
However, Netanyahu was facing innumerable challenges that most likely impelled this move:
- the likelihood of resumed socio-economic protests that had been initiated by the middle-class in 2011 (known as the J14 Movement or Tent Protests), that had also dented Netanyahu's popularity;
- a high-level attack on Netanyahu and the position of his defence minister, Ehud Barak, on Iran. Their war-talk and threats to attack Iran's nuclear facilities had been sorely undermined by Yuval Diskin (former Head of Shin Bet), Meir Dagan (former director of Mossad) and Lieutenant General Benny Gantz (Chief of General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces) who all spoke out vociferously against an attack;
- stalled negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (Israel's public commitment to restarting the peace process is undermined by continued settlement building in flagrant violation of the Oslo Accords);
- opposition from within his coalition to the demolition of illegal (by Israel's standard) Jewish buildings on Palestinian land, as well as opposition to the passing of a new law that would look to revoke the Tal Law. The Tal Law exempts Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jews) from military service. The proposed new law would also look to force Palestinian citizens of Israel to undergo national service – though on a civilian, not military, level;
- the increasing pressure that Netanyahu's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was exerting on the Prime Minister (particularly Lieberman's opposition to the Tal Law and extreme hard-line position on Palestinians); and
- the possibility of US President Barack Obama being re-elected. Netanyahu was no doubt cognisant that a November victory for Obama would see pressure exerted on him to make serious concessions for peace with the Palestinians.
This coalition will now not only give Netanyahu unprecedented power, with one commentator, and Time magazine, dubbing him 'the King of Israel', but will allow him to escape the stranglehold of the smaller right-wing orthodox, settler and nationalist members in his coalition. Netanyahu's dependence on these parties amounted to a situation where these smaller parties were steering political decisions; in effect the tail that was wagging the dog. A bolstered coalition could also enable Netanyahu to withstand pressures exerted on him by a re-elected Obama administration, who in his second term would undoubtedly be more bolshy and confident in pushing hard for some sort of settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
The winners and losers
Aside from a significantly bolstered Netanyahu, and by extension Likud party, undoubtedly the biggest winner has been the Kadima party. Although Kadima currently holds twenty-eight seats, making its representation even larger than Likud's with twenty-seven seats, it was widely predicted that an early election would see the former only retain eleven or twelve seats. For Kadima, joining the coalition was a critical political life-line that would give it time to begin shoring up greater support ahead of the elections in October 2013. However, with Kadima having its early roots in Likud (founded, as it was, as a breakaway party by Ariel Sharon), there has also been speculation that Kadima might simply find itself absorbed into Likud.
Another winner is arguably Defense Minister Ehud Barak. His Atzmaut party was predicted to not win any seats in the next election, and this coalition would ensure him retaining his position as one of the most important and influential ministers in Israel.
The coalition has been less beneficial for the parties not signatory to the agreement. Although Avigdor Lieberman's hard-line nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party was predicted to have dropped from fifteen seats to around twelve. Previously, his party was the second most influential in the coalition. With Kadima to back him up, Netanyahu is less susceptible to Lieberman's political blackmail.
Despite now being the official opposition, with only eight seats, the Labor party headed by Shelly Yachimovich is toothless. Additionally, the Labour party, which has become increasingly centrist and even right-wing (even by skewed Israeli standards of right and left), was predicted to benefit most from a weakened Kadima, and to win twenty seats in early elections.
The party hardest hit is the newly formed secularist party, Yesh Atid, headed by Yair Lapid. Polls predicted that an early election would have seen Yesh Atid take around a dozen seats (mostly from Kadima). Now it is unlikely that the party will survive till the next election.
Four areas of agreement
Four main areas of agreement were put forward as the basis of the partnership between Netanyahu and Mofaz:
1. the development of a replacement for the Tal Law: The new law would see a bolstered economy with Haredi Jews now being forced to either serve in the military or in civilian units. This would also see less money spent on social benefits to supplement the religious studies of the Haredim. Controversially, this law will also see Palestinian citizens of Israel forced to serve in civilian forces. This supposed attempt at social cohesion in effect attempts to obscure the innumerable laws that discriminate against the Palestinian population in Israel – the real issue behind social discord;
2. the passing of a new budget;
3. reforming the system of governance; and
4. reigniting the 'peace process' and dealing with Israel's 'external threats' (i.e., Iran).
Negotiations and the 'peace process'
Even though the peace process has been relegated to fourth in the list of priorities and has been exposed as a means for Israel to further pilfer Palestinian land, expand on its settlements, entrench the occupation and ensure that, in effect, through security coordination the Palestinian Authority carries out the occupation for it, Mofaz is seen by the Palestinian Authority as a potential negotiating partner. With his own floundering political career, Mahmoud Abbas was quick to welcome Mofaz's appointment and called for substantive talks. This also despite Mofaz envisioning the creation of a Palestinian state on only sixty percent of the West Bank. However, as a supporter of a two-state solution, it is most likely that Netanyahu saw in Mofaz the opportunity to restart the negotiations, or at least create such an illusion in the eyes of the Palestinian Authority. The PA's recent reconciliation accord with Hamas has both angered and concerned Israel, and it no doubt wants to steer the PA away from any cooperation with Hamas. A reigniting of the peace process would also deflect international pressure on Israel. Amongst many Israelis the sentiment is that only a right-wing government can negotiate a settlement, and as the chief of staff that quashed the Second Intifada, Mofaz is viewed as a potential candidate for the job.
Although there has been speculation that Netanyahu brought another military man (alongside Barak) on board in preparation for a strike on Iran, it is most likely that Mofaz is seen by Netanyahu as a means to defuse, on a domestic front, the criticism on him and Barak for pushing hard for a strike – particularly the criticism by Diskin, Gantz and Dagan that sapped away at Netanyahu's credibility on the issue. With Mofaz, who himself has been vocally critical on a strike against Iran, now Netanyahu's man leading on this front, it creates a means for Netanyahu to disentangle himself from the embarrassment of a change in position. It is likely that the war blustering will continue but slowly die down.