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The Real Lion of Zion: Netanyahu Consolidates Power

The Israeli opposition party Kadima, which has the largest number of Knesset seats of any single Israeli political party, will join in a national unity government with second-seated Likud and its main partner, third-seated Yisrael Beiteinu. This creates a majority since among themselves these 3 main parties will control 70 out of 120 seats in … Continued

The Israeli opposition party Kadima, which has the largest number of Knesset seats of any single Israeli political party, will join in a national unity government with second-seated Likud and its main partner, third-seated Yisrael Beiteinu. This creates a majority since among themselves these 3 main parties will control 70 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, and including smaller Likud coalition partners, this bloc could be up to 94 votes strong — meaning they could easy institute new Basic Laws if they chose to do so.

Earlier Likud-driven plans to move up Israel’s 2013 elections to September 4, 2012 that had been opposed by Kadima have now been “frozen,” according to Haaretz, which had actually reported yesterday that a parliamentary committee voted 12-1 in favoring of dissolving this Knesset to hold elections in September. The decision to suspend the elections apparently came overnight during inter-party talks between Kadima and Likud after that particular bill was set to go on to a further vote. Hundreds of Israelis have taken to the streets to condemn the government’s actions – and Mofaz in particular, newspaper polls show – and the most trenchant critics of this eleventh-hour deal have spoken of the “Putinisation” of Israeli politics, a disparaging reference to Russian leaders Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev.

It was Likud that called for the elections, and Likud is now apparently taking the initiative to undo them, though some members of Likud deny this and lay the initiative at Mofaz’s feet — such members, it seems, genuinely hoped to trounce Kadima this fall. Is it simple politicking (Netanyahu finally getting fed up over compromising with settler parties, religious and non-religious that often find themselves at odds with him), a popular move to revoke special military exemptions for Haredi Jews and Israeli Arabs, an effort to secure further settlement expansion, an insurance arrangement against Obama 2012, or a means of putting Israel further on a war footing with Iran?

All of the above all possible — and as such, Bibi wins in 2012.

With Likud, the immediate effort is all about taking advantage of a beaten opposition; now only Labor and the smaller parties — Palestinian citizens of Israel, far-left and ultra-religious — remain, a most fractious and heavily outnumbered coalition. Bibi may just be the most politically insulated Prime Minister in Israeli history at this moment: “king of Israeli politics,” Haaretz just called him, grudgingly that he is, after all, “Israel’s number one politician, no doubt — by a mile.”

And for Kadima, it is about surviving to the next election. The move represents a significant departure in Kadima’s rhetoric, to say the least. At the end of March, following Tzipi Livni’s loss to Shaul Mofaz, the new head of the party told Haaretzhe’d never join a government with Likud (h/t Max Blumenthal):

Yossi Veter: Would you consider joining a government should that situation arise?

Shaul Mofaz: No, Kadima under my leadership will remain in the opposition. The current government represents all that is wrong with Israel, I believe. Why should we join it? We will be a responsible opposition. Anything Netanyahu does for the benefit of Israel’s future will find our support. I want to restore an ethic of nonpartisan patriotism to Israel. I want to represent something new, like we had in the past.

But Kadima, born out of a schism within Likud in 2005, has few options otherwise if it wants to hold onto the seats it won in 2009. Elizabeth Tsurkov, from +972, and Barak Ravid of Haaretz:

In any current poll, Kadima’s power is projected to diminish by almost 2/3. Kadima wants to keep this unrepresentative Knesset in power.
— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) May 8, 2012

Reason for agreement: Mofaz was panicked by the elections, Ehud Barak also panicked and Bibi wanted to kill Labor and Yair Lapid
— Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) May 8, 2012

And Gregg Carlstrom at Al Jazeera:

Yet another Israel poll: Likud gets 31 seats in early elex, Labor 17, Yisrael Beiteinu 13, Atid 12, Kadima down to 10.
— Gregg Carlstrom (@glcarlstrom) May 3, 2012

Likud has found a way to have its cake — humbling Kadima — and eat it too with this deal because now, that cake is Kadima. One wonders what resurrected legislation from 2010 and 2011 on loyalty oaths, BDS, administrative detention, NGO funding, settlement subsidies or judicial appointments to the High Court will make a comeback. What foreign observers are most concerned about, of course, is not Kadima’s electoral woes, or how this all means the national service exemption “Tal Law” will be amended or annulled (a measure both Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu back), but what this unity government portends for a possible conflict with Iran. Barbara Slavin of Al-Monitor asks:

mofaz opposes #israel war on #iran; what did bibi promise him?
— Barbara Slavin (@barbaraslavin1) May 8, 2012

At the moment, we know Mofaz has been promised two explicit, and one implicit, bargains. Mofaz will become a deputy prime minister in the new government, but will be a “minister without portfolio” “in charge of the process with the Palestinians.” These offices are his explicit rewards. His implicit reward, as noted above, is getting to avoid a general election for at least one more year that his party was likely to suffer in.

Finally, for Likud there is a big immediate benefit regarding the settlements, suggests Noam Sheizaf (though he notes this might only be a temporary victory for Bibi):

The final push for the new agreement was probably yesterday’s High Court ruling on the evacuation of the Ulpana neighborhood in the settlement of Beit El, built on private Palestinian land. With elections around the corner, this would have become for Netanyahu a public showdown with either the settlers or with the court – and possibly both. By postponing the elections, the prime minister has bought himself some time to deal with the crisis.

As to what the new arrangement might mean for the peace process – Mofaz’s “60%” disengagement plan from the West Bank (the “60%” moniker comes from the fact that Mofaz says Israel should hand over 60% of the West Bank to Ramallah’s control, followed by a pledge to reach a final status agreement within a year) goes further than anything Netanyahu has ever proposed – there are two competing views. Commentators such as J. J. Goldberg, Carlo Strenger and Gerald Steinberg hope that with Mofaz’s military credentials, there might be progress because now Bibi can no longer claim to be “beholden” to the settler wing in his own party, which constiutes about a quarter of registered Likud voters and claims several sitting top parliamentarians and ministers who do not support any negotiations. In theory, Bibi is now freed from them and the settler constituncies of other right-wing parties, including those represented by his own Foreign and Interior Ministers.

In contrast, Mitchell Plitnick, Ori Nir and Aluf Benn, among others, find such progress doubtful because Netanyahu, despite publically committing himself to the two-state solution, has repeatedly indicated he does not want to see an independent Palestinian state form under his watch; his preferred percetage, if you will, for Palestinian “statehood,” in fact, is said to be 40%: the 40% being four separated “cantonments” in the West Bank acting as “autonomous” enclaves. And Mofaz’s 60% solution is problematic for the Palestinians because it gives Ramallah the heavily-populated areas it already technically controls in the West Bank – designated Areas A and B – and only one-fifth of Area C, the less populated but larger area of the West Bank that the Government of Israel directly controls. In accepting these terms, the Palestinian Authority might fear it will get a slice of Area C and some settlement withdrawals only to see a “100%” final status agreement never materialize. Mofaz’s plan also does not adequately address Hamas, which controls Gaza following a bloody split with Fatah after 2006, seem to give the Palestinians much say in negotiating which settlements Israel would withdrawal from (few, it seems, would have a population over 3,000), or allow a Palestinian capital to be set up in East Jerusalem.

No one has yet offered any compelling evidence that the two men dwelt on the peace process in their eleventh-hour meeting (which is in part why some Knesset members are now demanding the pair release documentation or recordings from that meeting), aside from the vague language about “process” that will fall to Mofaz. Sheizaf is right that the first key test is coming over Ulpana: Avigdor Lieberman, still Foreign Minister but no longer the kingmaker he was in 2009, the last time elections were held in Israel, is demanding the government – and Kadima, specifically – take action to reverse that High Court ruling and legalize the illegal outpost ASAP. This litmus test for the government’s presumed newfound committment to the peace process will once again showcase Netanyahu’s ability to play all sides – hence his reputation “tactician supreme” to his detractors – since he dislikes having to take orders from the settler establishment within Likud but sees the state-sanctioned (and funded) undertaking as politically useful … :

First he swung left and in November 2009 imposed the most stringent crackdown on Jewish West Bank construction in the history of the settlement movement when he mandated a 10-month moratorium on all new construction.

Then in a rightward swing, he did more than the previous two governments to legalize unauthorized settler homes and communities. Last month, he converted three outposts into settlements. It is the first time new settlements have been authorized in over a decade.

… and, as noted above, broadly supportive of their aspirations because of his longstanding opposition to Palestinian statehood, inherrited from his late father, the historian Benzion Netanyahu. It’s worth noting that members of Likud are telling the right-leaning Jersusalem Post that a deal that reverses the ruling on Ulpana is coming soon, and that Mofaz is saying he’s taking Bibi’s “respect for the rule of law” statement on the outpost – seen as a step towards a bill that will legalize it over the High Court – at face value.

As for the foreign front, I think that Bibi has decided to hedge his bets for now on Iran by offering the bruised Kadima a way forward to survive another year in a way that insulates him from American pressure and possible domestic confrontations over his focus on Iran. Yousef Munayyer put it succinctly:

@blakehounshell its more about obama than Iran, even when its about Iran, its about Obama
— Yousef Munayyer (@YousefMunayyer) May 8, 2012

Now Netanyahu won’t have to tone down his rhetoric on Iran, which he has used to successfully dodge the question on settlements as well as (reducing) sanctions and criticizing P5+1 diplomacy, which, apparently, he is now doing with Mofaz in the room with EU diplomats. Or, perhaps far, far more importantly for his fellow Likudniks’ purposes, concern himself with any further weak Western protests over West Bank settlement expansion. At the risk of beating a dead horse — this coalition formation shows we can also say goodbye to any foreseeable future negotiations with Ramallah.

On the Obama angle, the Israeli tabloid Maariv’s Ben Caspit reported earlier this week, when elections were still on, that Netanyahu had based his call for early election off of an AIPAC consensus that Obama would win reelection in 2012 (and thus, feel capable of standing up to the Prime Minister). He hardly needed AIPAC to tell him the President’s ahead in the polls, but Caspit’s effort to portrait Bibi’s mindset is illuminating:

The surprising announcement of early primaries in Likud by the party leadership fell out of the blue, [and] came three days after a quiet meeting held with AIPAC officials, who after conducting a review of U.S. polling data, advised Netanyahu that Obama would be the next president. Bibi knows he cannot campaign for reelection himself with Obama in office for a second term. This is a dangerous gamble. [But] there is great mistrust between the American President and the Israeli Prime Minister, and Netanyahu may try to do to Obama what he did during Clinton’s first term, and Obama [may try to do] to Yitzhak Shamir what George H. W. Bush did in 1992.

When referring to Clinton, the author means Netanyahu’s efforts to handicap the Oslo Accords. With Shamir, he means to say that Bibi seeks to avoid any chance of there being repeat of the “one lonely little guy” speech Bush gave when he refused to cave in to Shamir on delinking loan guarantees from a halt to settlement expansion. Netanyahu would rather not fight that fight and give his opponents at home openings against him, even though he’s almost certain to win such a fight both at home and abroad. As such, it may be that these comparisons (severely) overestimates Obama’s will to criticize the Israeli government and (slightly) overdoes Bibi’s sense of insecurity since Congress will simply not allow such scenarios to come into being.

This said, the Prime Minister would rather not have to fight such a fight when the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” gives him so much room to maneuver in the region, no matter how much he dislikes Obama. So he is playing it safe; no elections to risk losing a seat in the Knesset or having to face an irate White House. If he’s concluded Obama will win, he intends to set the tone for the President’s final term by building his coalition ahead of the actual Romney-Obama faceoff. He puts himself above the fray, and greater unity at home will translate into greater assertiveness abroad. It keeps the rhetoric red hot.

So, then, here is the $64,000, deal-or-no deal question: where does this leave newcomer Mofaz in Bibi’s kitchen cabinet? Are the scales tipped in favor of war with Mofaz’s addition to the coalition?

Not for now, at least. Mofaz opposes an attack on Iran as of this writing, but as Meir Javedanfar told The New York Times in light of Kadima’s paltry spoils of appointments, “such weakness means that his impact on the government’s Iran policy and narrative is likely to be limited.” And at the same time, it is not clear that if Mofaz were to change his mind, this would help the most gung-ho boosters of an attack either. The most outspoken opponents have, in any case, mainly been former national security officials, and in a way, Bibi has preempted them with this unity government (not that some kind of reaching across the aisle seemed to be in the cards; most who’ve worn the uniform have kept quiet reports Gareth Porter, and some other former top brass are significant war boosters within the Israeli Cabinet). For those opposed to a war, the best-case scenario for the P5+1 members reaching diplomatic resolution that the Israelis could live with is Mitchell Plitnick’s speculation that Mofaz has been brought in to walk back Netanyahu’s frequent invocations of Hitler and the Holocaust in speeches about the Iranian nuclear program.

Again, the kitchen cabinet — this “Octet” — is reportedly still divided over an attack. It’s tempting to see a possible reorganization of the “Octet” as a prelude to a 2012 war with Iran because it ensures Barak stays on as Defense Minister and, as Larry Derfner notes, Bibi has “cleared his calendar,” and Ehud Barak had earlier said this month the government had to separate Iran from “the elections.” Thus, further settlement building, the revival of undemocratic legislation, even Cast Lead II seem just as, if not more, likely worst-case outcomes for 2012-3 (unless, you know, I’m dead wrong, and Mofaz, the man who would beat Bibi and never, ever, ever join a coalition with him does an about-face on Iran and it’s bombs away).

But even if he does not defect over Iran to the hawks, one does wonder what Mofaz is going to look forward in 2013 when elections will take place — although since they’re apparently going to get to do some election law rewriting, that question may be answered by Kadima itself! But what was promised, indeed, for the man who swore upon his election this spring that he would “replace” Netanyahu? And was a compromise on Iran policy staked out in these arrangements?

What Bibi intends to do with the time and the Knesset majority he has bought himself through 2013 remains to be seen. West Bank settlement expansion, “court packing,” sanctions on the PA, bombing Iran, perhaps even further punitive measures in Gaza? All are on firmer ground as of this week, “the putsch against war” notwithstanding.

Indeed, thanks to Kadima’s actions, “the putsch against war” may constitute the only serious challenge to Bibi’s politics right now, and that is cause for concern over the Iranian question (hopefully, the generals will continue to not be swayed by Bibi’s efforts to influence the services with his political appointees). So the initiative on Iran, the settlements, the “peace process,” the national service debate and even the chance to pass new Basic Laws will stay with the Prime Minister for at least a year.

It’s good to be the king.

This cross-posted version has been expanded from its original length to reflect new reports out of Israel. The shorter, original version can be viewed at Mondoweiss or FPIF.

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