Just a week ago, members of the Israeli parliament were debating whether or not to disband the legislature in order to usher in early elections in September. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen today as one of the most popular politicians in the country, was a vocal backer of the idea. Worried that right-wing parties in his coalition were beginning to splinter over the divisive issue of military service for religious students, early elections could have reaffirmed Netanyahu’s domestic support and consolidated his power.
But in a last-minute change of heart, Netanyahu managed to strike a deal to avert early elections entirely.
After painstaking negotiations in the middle of the night, Netanyahu emerged from the room to address the Israeli press with his newfound political ally, former army chief of staff and defense minister Shaul Mofaz — who just weeks ago pledged to use his recent victory in the Kadima party as a counterweight to the prime minister.
Mofaz will be made a deputy prime minister in exchange for rolling his party into Netanyahu’s coalition government.
The result: Netanyahu is now leading the widest coalition in Israeli political history, with 94 seats in the 120 member Knesset under his leadership.
From afar, it is tempting to chalk Netanyahu’s latest political coup as an attempt to grab more support inside Israel’s political system.
Indeed, with his coalition expanded, this was undoubtedly a major variable in his calculations. Netanyahu is a shrewd political operator who has learned from the mistakes he made during his previous tenure as prime minister in the 1990s.
Further from the surface, the Netanyahu-Mofaz agreement could very well be something entirely different: a bid to dilute the power of the religious parties on which Netanyahu has depended to stay in power.
Impediment to peace
For the last three years, the conservative leader has been cast by his enemies in Israel and some in the United States as an impediment to peace talks with the Palestinians.
This is not an unreasonable view. It took Netanyahu decades to endorse the conventional two-state solution. He refused to stop settlement construction in the occupied West Bank — a Palestinian precondition for peace talks.
The only time Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met directly was during a brief summit in September 2010, which collapsed over the Israeli prime minister’s refusal to extend a temporary Jewish settlement freeze.
As long as his governing coalition relied on religiously-oriented parties, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, the Orthodox Shas and pro-settler factions of Likud, Netanyahu always had a reason (or excuse) not to offer the Palestinians any concessions. An more settlement freezes or symbolic speeches supporting Palestinian independence would have rankled Netanyahu’s right-wing base, compromising his his government.
By bringing in centrist lawmakers, the influence of fringe parties will be thinned out, giving Netanyahu breathing space to negotiate with the Palestinians on matters such as settlement construction, security cooperation and further withdrawals of Israeli defense forces from the West Bank.
It remains to be seen if Netanyahu will exploit his new coalition to make difficult but necessary decisions on the peace process, including the termination of all settlement activity on land that the Palestinians need for a future state of their own.
If not, he will have spoiled an opportunity to advance the peace process — one that is slowly but surely on life support as the settler population in the West Bank continues to expand.