Israel woke up to an astounding new political reality Tuesday morning, one in which religious and far-right parties had lost considerable influence.
Having gone to sleep with the certainty that the parliament, or Knesset, would dissolve itself in a late-night vote, once again felling the government and leading to early elections on Sept. 4, the surprise of discovering a newly formed unity government deal in the morning was palpable.
Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, just months into his new role atop the centrist Kadima party, decided to join the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the eleventh hour, creating one of the largest unity governments in the nation’s history (only two have surpassed it). In a country where governments reach the 61-vote coalition threshold by the skin of their teeth, controlling 94 out of 120 seats – over 75 percent – is historic indeed. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Many Israelis, especially Kadima voters opposed to Mr. Netanyahu, were too caught up in the seeming political sliminess of the deal to grasp the opportunities a new political order affords.
Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, whose party was polling at a distant second for the expected election, called it a “covenant of cowards.” Respected journalist and political neophyte Yair Lapid, who will have to now wait 17 months before his newly formed party can enter the Knesset, said it was a “disgusting political alliance.” On Facebook, video clips of Mr. Mofaz repeatedly calling Netanyahu an untrustworthy liar resurfaced, alongside Mofaz’s own resolute promises not to join a Netanyahu government.
These critics miss the point.
Setting aside the broken promises and heated rhetoric that have come to characterize the dysfunction of Israeli politics, the unity deal will create a unique moment of centrist, political stability in the government. It will allow the government to address some of the more fundamental problems the state faces – including the moribund peace process with Palestinians – without a veto threat from the far-right parties, who until now could topple the government if they bolted the coalition.
While the 94-seat-strong super-coalition is unlikely to remain fully intact until October 2013, when regularly scheduled elections are planned, there is a good chance it will survive with more than 61 seats. The reason is that centrist parties – Netanyahu’s Likud, Kadima, and Ehud Barak’s Independence, which broke away from Labor last year – comprise 60 seats of the coalition in and of themselves. They need only one other party, or one other member of the Knesset to pass their laws.
With those numbers, they have a giant buffer to move ahead with tough proposals supported by most Israelis, even if right-wing parties like Yisrael Beiteinu or religious parties like Shas object, and drop out of the new coalition.
The scale of this political power is clear in the ambitious priorities Netanyahu and Mofaz laid out in their agenda. In the next 17 months, they said at the press conference announcing their agreement, they hope to address four difficult, controversial issues.
The first goal is replacing the Tal Law, the controversial legal provision that has allowed the ultra-Orthodox to refrain from serving in the military – an exemption that riles the majority who serve in the conscript army. The Supreme Court forced the issue with a decision to invalidate the law and require the government to replace it by Aug. 1, which is what threatened to break apart the coalition and bring about early elections in the first place. Now the religious parties that refused to budge on the point have a far weaker hand to play.
The second, and perhaps least exciting issue, is passing a new budget reflecting the state’s priorities. Here, politicians can best address (or try to quell) the expected return this summer of protests on social inequality.
The third goal is changing the electoral structure altogether. Quirks in Israel’s electoral system cause it to suffer from immense instability, which has prevented every government in over two decades from completing a full, four-year term.
By international standards, Israel has a low threshold of votes required for parties to enter the Knesset. Raising the threshold would mean fewer small parties, and as a result, fewer parties that can hold a fragile coalition hostage with their demands. Even if all the other goals fail, succeeding with this one will equip Israel to better deal with political challenges in the future. It must be a priority.
And finally, the peace process is back on the agenda. To hear Netanyahu include peace negotiations as one of his top four priorities is a welcome change, and the Palestinians should take note. Fresh off their own cabinet reshuffle, the Palestinian Authority could take advantage of a rare opportunity to agree on and pass a deal without the usual domestic pressure on the Israeli side.
Netanyahu could also, without the baggage of the religious parties, accede to the Palestinian pre-condition that he freeze settlement activity, but he would have to quell dissent within his own party to do so – as well as roll back his own strong statements favoring settlements.
Of course, overlooking the biggest international challenge Israel faces would be foolish. When early elections were anticipated, the possibility of a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities was vastly diminished – military action would be difficult during the political limbo. But the lack of an election keeps the threat alive, which in turn both bolsters chances that upcoming nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West will bear fruit, and allows Israel to act if it feels the need to.
Through the political sandstorm, it is possible that Netanyahu has shown his true colors to be pragmatic, centrist ones. Unlike Mofaz, Netanyahu had nothing to worry about in early elections. The only reason to offer the foundering left (and Kadima, in particular) a lifeline would be because he believes in fixing Israel’s seemingly intractable problems, and found a rare opportunity to do so.
Having freed himself from the shackles of rigidly right-wing and religious parties, Netanyahu may yet prove more flexible than expected.