Benjamin Netanyahu, ever the master maneuverer, has done it again. Just moments before the Israeli Parliament was to ratify the call for new elections, the Kadima Party announced that it had completed negotiations with the Prime Minister and would join the government producing Israel's largest governing coalition in history (including 94 of 120 Members of the Knesset). The announcement sent shockwaves throughout the region and here in the US. Speculation was rife about what this sudden move might mean.
In the days that followed, it was fascinating to read the views of Arab, Israeli, and American commentators as they attempted to understand this Israeli development. Many Arab commentators predictably and definitively saw this new Israeli "unity" as a danger, a harbinger of a new regional war. And they didn't mince words. Seeing a precedent in the Israeli coalition government that was formed in the lead-up to the '67 War, one Arab analyst wrote "this is a war coalition" claiming that the target would be Iran or Lebanon.
The U.S. press, equally delusional when it comes to all things Israel, largely saw this broader Israeli government as a positive development, with liberals moralizing that with this expanded mandate Netanyahu should now be in a position to move confidently to a peace settlement with the Palestinians, saying that "under Netanyahu, Israel is stronger than ever."
This echoed the somewhat subtle chiding of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who reportedly suggested that the Israel Prime Minister could no longer claim that he would lose his governing coalition should he make peace. He was now in a political position which gave him the space to at least help strengthen the Palestinian Authority.
American neo-conservatives, on the other hand, shared the Arab take on the Netanyahu move, but with a twist. While Arab writers dreaded the war they feared might result from this expanded governing coalition, U.S. hawks appear to eagerly anticipate it.
Most interesting and sanguine were the Israeli commentators who saw in the maneuvering of both Netanyahu and his new "partner," Shaul Mofaz, signs of weakness, not strength. This led many Israeli writers to conclude that far from setting the stage for decisive action, this new government was doomed to paralysis.
Netanyahu is facing two immediate internal challenges that were threatening his rightist coalition. Within a few weeks the government must act on two separate court decisions, one which found unconstitutional the law that exempted the ultra-Orthodox from military service, and the other which gave the government until the beginning July to evacuate an illegal settlement built on Palestinian-owned land north of Ramallah. Implementing either one or both would cause a political rupture, causing some members of Netanyahu's coalition to bolt. Meanwhile, the third largest grouping in his government, the Russian immigrant-based nationalist party headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has threatened to leave should the government fail implement the change in the law on military service. All of which put Netanyahu in a bind.
By broadening the base of his coalition, Netanyahu has now removed the leverage of these groups to withdraw their support--since they no longer have the ability to collapse the government. His motivation, it appears, was more survival than action, or as one writer termed it "nothing more than an attempt to prolong his own political life." He is, said another, "a coward who is afraid of elections, afraid of the settlers, and afraid of the ultra-Orthodox." So rather than lead by taking decisive action, he accepted the life-line offered by Mofaz and can now continue to govern by playing one group against another.
The leader of the Kadima group similarly appeared to be motivated by crass political survival. Since winning the contest to lead the party founded less than a decade ago by the personal aspirations and "charisma" of Ariel Sharon, Shaul Mofaz has seen his fortunes dramatically fade. Most recent polls show that in new elections Kadima would win a mere 10 seats in the next Knesset, down from the party's current 28. Entering into a coalition with the man he recently called a "liar," appeared a safer bet than facing humiliation at the polls. One analyst termed the move "a cynical attempt to extend the life of a spineless party."
Secretary Clinton is right. The game is up. Netanyahu can no longer use the lame excuse he has relied on for years. He has, if he wishes, the numbers within and still outside of his coalition to make peace. But sadly, the Israeli pundits who know him best also have it right, he is a maneuverer who uses his wiles to promote paralysis in order to avoid peace at all cost. The best evidence is that his response to the court decision to evacuate the illegal settlement is to propose new legislation to "legalize" what is illegal. So do not hold your breath expecting big things, either bad or good, from this big new government. That was not what brought it into being. Expect, instead, business as usual.
And so after all the drama of the past week and the nervous speculation or excited expectation (depending on the lens through which you viewed the events that unfolded) little has changed for better or worse. As my friend MJ Rosenberg wrote. it was all "much ado about nothing."
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