In a surprise move late last night that confounded weeks of expert punditry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) announced the formation of a unity government. The Likud leader had been expected to call for early elections in September (rather than October 2013) before this news broke.
Via Meadia‘s telepathic capabilities are unfortunately limited, so we cannot tell readers what the leaders were thinking, but it is not hard to see the logic behind this development. Bibi wants to present a united political front to the US and the international community as he presses forward against Iran; he seeks greater coalition flexibility to deal with crucial (but underreported) domestic considerations like the battle to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the army and workforce, and the reduction of their subsidies. Meanwhile, in addition to sharing these concerns, Mofaz sought to avert electoral disaster, as polls showed his Kadima party heading for a nosedive in proposed early elections.
Students of Israeli history should not be surprised by this turn of events. The Jewish state has a tradition of broad-based centrist government during times of existential crisis, such as the build-up to the 1967 Six Day War. Parties tend to downplay their usual political differences in order to unite the country against a common foe. The Iranian nuclear threat most certainly qualifies as such an epochal event, as Netanyahu has often noted.
This grand coalition was perhaps a bit easier to cobble together than some of the earlier ones. Kadima split off from Likud under former premier Ariel Sharon, and the distance between the parties is not unbridgeable.
So the new government is a significant boon to both Netanyahu and Mofaz, as well as the State of Israel. But there is another unexpected beneficiary of this development: President Barack Obama.
This new centrist government removes one of the key stumbling blocks to the President’s diplomacy in the region: the conservative Israeli coalition. It is important to remember that this coalition was not Netanyahu’s first choice–after last elections, he sought to form a unity government with Kadima under now-deposed leader Tzipi Livni, but she refused to join unless she was given rotating premiership. Bibi then formed a government with a plethora of right-wing parties, as well as the left-leaning but greatly diminished Labor party under Ehud Barak.
This coalition was an uneasy one, and it came with high costs like installing the disreputable and often abrasive Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister. Netanyahu himself is no flaming dove on the Palestinian issue, but the nature of the coalition reduced his bargaining flexibility.
By contrast, the new centrist coalition relegates extreme parties to its fringe, increases Netanyahu’s maneuverability on everything from Iran to the economy to the peace process, and allows him to embark on much-needed electoral reform to reduce the influence on small extremist parties. But just as crucially, the new government will also put greater internal pressure on Netanyahu to deal with the Palestinians (Kadima and Mofaz are on record in support of a more conciliatory approach).
It is a mixed picture for Obama. On the one hand, this government may be a little easier to work with on Palestinian issues; on the other, it may be politically easier for the Israelis to launch an attack against Iran.
Keeping up the pressure against Iran, consulting with Israel as nuclear negotiations proceed, and looking for ways to start some kind of meaningful discussion between Israelis and Palestinians looks like the most fruitful course the US administration’s Middle East diplomacy could take right now. For President Obama, who has pretty much been locked into a tough policy approach to Iran without being able to get anything significant from the Israelis on negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, that looks like a step forward.
If he plays his cards well, and if he is lucky (always a vital component of successful policy moves in the Middle East), President Obama just might emerge as the victor in Israel’s election that never was.