On the night of May 7, Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz joined Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to obviate the need for early elections and rescue Israel from the mess it has gotten itself into. In the international sphere, two fateful and insoluble problems dog the government: the Iranian nuclear project and the Palestinian question. Moreover, the two issues are linked: Israel’s quarrel with the US over the settlements in the occupied territories makes it hard to get US backing for its policy towards Iran.
On the domestic, social and political fronts, the government is shadowed by the threat of renewed social protest this summer, which is expected to be more aggressive and focused than it was last summer. Bibi’s latest stunt pours oil onto the flames of social discontent, especially in light of the last protest’s failure to achieve any results. The new “unity government” was established, among other reasons, to implement budgetary cuts and raise taxes while ignoring the hardships of the population. On the other hand, the government is feeling pressure from the High Court, which it despises and holds in contempt. The Court demands the evacuation of settlements that were built on private Palestinian land, and the government – cajoled by rightist elements in the Likud – is coming up with various maneuvers to prevent the demolition of the homes. This kind of evacuation would likely lead to clashes with the “hilltop youth” (settlers who “occupy” hilltops by setting up dwellings) and the extremist Feiglin faction within the Likud, which enjoys increasing influence in the party.
This tangled mess is the main reason for the unholy alliance – Bibi, Ehud Barak and Shaul Mofaz. In an earlier night-time maneuver, Bibi succeeded in breaking up the Labor Party, keeping Barak and a few others within the coalition as a new faction called “Independence.” Now he has swallowed up Kadima, the product of a different trinity – Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres and Haim Ramon – which has since been ejected from politics: Sharon to a deep coma, Peres to the presidency, and Ramon following conviction for indecent assault.
The founding of Kadima in November 2005 was Netanyahu’s nightmare. Sharon abandoned the Likud because the rightists in the party prevented him from governing, and he left the party with just 11 Knesset members. Since then, Bibi has been trying to break up Kadima. In December 2009, Tzipi Livni was already accusing him of trying to do so. She told Mofaz at the time, “It’s out in the open, and it’s a fact. You and me, and all the senior party leaders, we must stand up to his efforts.” Livni tried and failed. In the primaries at the end of March, Livni suffered an embarrassing defeat and left the party. Sharon’s protégé, she had been among those who had left the Likud with him. The moment she parted from Kadima, the party lost its raison d’être. Her exit made things easy for Mofaz. In December 2005, as a Likud member, Mofaz had said, “You don’t leave your home,” but this didn’t stop him from joining the Kadima bandwagon the moment he discerned which way the wind was blowing. Now he returns “home.”
The deal suits Barak too. During his reign as PM (1999-2001), his totalitarian style, lack of social skills and political timidity led his government to fail, while he blamed the Palestinians for everything. On the other hand, as defense minister he was successful, particularly after Amir Peretz’s abortive efforts as Defense Minister during the second Lebanon War (2006). Unlike Peretz, Barak knows how to uncover the binoculars, though with such political short-sightedness, it’s not clear whether he sees anything. His recoil from any political solution has now thrown him into the arms of Netanyahu and the extreme right, which led to the breakup of the Labor Party. There is a strong suspicion that in return for the sacrifice he offered to Bibi, he was promised a high place on the Likud list in future elections.
And thus we come to the third side, the great political conjurer, the indefatigable survivor, the man of a thousand faces. It turns out that Bibi, who lauds himself on his governing skills, has a hard time governing his own house. Even had he been victorious in the now cancelled elections, he would have been weakened within his party: more Knesset seats for the Likud would also have meant more Messianic rightwing leaders under Feiglin’s faction and more rightwingers in the Knesset.
Since Livni left Kadima, Mofaz’s popularity in the polls has plunged, and his wretched scurrying for cover has encouraged Bibi to tighten the screws. When Bibi fixed a date for elections, the cries of Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh from the Knesset podium testified to her party’s poor electoral prospects: “Why are you doing this to us?” Bibi offered Mofaz two choices: either I destroy you or I swallow you up. Mofaz suddenly discovered he misses his old home, and very prettily apologized for having called Bibi a liar. Bibi, to justify the deal, reiterated the magic word: governance. With this hocus-pocus, the broadest government coalition Israel has ever seen took shape before our eyes, based on two “big” parties. This government may be completely disconnected from the people, but it has outstanding governing abilities.
The black hole
Kadima is the result of a political maneuver by Haim Ramon which he called the “Big Bang.” The party under Sharon’s leadership was to draw into its fold left-leaning Likud members and right-leaning Labor members, thus creating a large centrist party. Ramon has much dubious credit to his name: he cut the Histadrut down to size and destroyed organized labor; he promoted the separation fence which deepened the conflict with the Palestinians; and he also established Kadima. Kadima’s joining the government leaves a black hole which sucks the entire political establishment into a vortex still tending to the right – on the economic, social and political planes alike.
We’re not merely witnessing a unity government, but a new political configuration in which Bibi, tired of his former allies’ extortion, extends a hand to the drowning Barak and Mofaz, and the three cooperate in order to maintain their positions. The renewed government’s aim is to push the religious factions, the Shas members and settlers – and of course the leftists – to the political margins. The government will hold to rightwing liberalism, a market economy, and refusal to reach a compromise with the Palestinians, without needing Messianic extremism or religious coercion. The Likud has reinvented itself, and Feiglin and his friends will have to find a different home.
Livni put in a brief appearance at the demonstration against this political deal, which was held in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square on Tuesday, while Shelly Yachimovich sat comfortably in the TV studios. They both want to fill the black hole, but Livni already showed her lack of leadership skills when she failed to form a government following Ehud Olmert’s resignation and again when she was defeated within her party. Yachimovich, on the other hand, already announced at the beginning of May her possible willingness to sit with Bibi in the same government: she has neglected the “political” for the sake of the “social.” This is not how one builds an alternative.
Bibi, Mofaz and Barak: these three musketeers have a truly amazing record. Together, they represent two chiefs of staff, two defense ministers and two prime ministers. However, they have also shown that the problems they face are too big for them. Regarding Iran, they stand before an insurmountable wall in the form of the US and Western countries which oppose their aggressive policies. They have also come under heavy criticism from Shin Bet and Mossad officers who had served them loyally for years. Regarding the Palestinians, they simply allow the situation to get worse, risking an explosion.
Bibi knows that Obama is waiting round the corner. He may have managed to postpone elections and dig in behind a coalition of 94 Knesset members, but external pressure will only increase if Obama is elected to a second term. Bibi did everything to irritate the US administration, from funding Republican candidates via his friend Sheldon Adelson, through provocative appearances in Congress, to scorning US requests concerning an end to settlement in the West Bank. Before Israel’s next elections, which will probably take place as scheduled in October 2013, the Americans, the Europeans, the Turks, the Arab states – everyone, in fact – will put pressure on Israel to accommodate the Palestinians and save itself from national suicide, the otherwise inevitable result of intransigence and aggression by a government that is quickly losing all international support.
Translated from the Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger