Op-Ed by Marcus Sheff: Netanyahu’s Political Brinkmanship


Jerusalem, May 8 – For the second time in the life of this government, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled off an audacious operation worthy of the Israeli special forces unit, Sayeret Matkal, in which he served.

The first was in January 2011, with former brother-in-arms and unit commander, Ehud Barak, who headed a Labor party that was about to leave the government. Overnight, Barak stepped down as party chairman, formed a new party that received four portfolios in the Netanyahu coalition and prolonged the life of the coalition.

Last night saw the second operation, this time with Kadima party head Shaul Mofaz, who was at Entebbe as deputy Sayeret Matkal commander under the prime minister’s brother Yoni, who lost his life in the operation.

Clearly, the qualities of secrecy, guile and daring transfer from special operations to the Israeli political battlefield.

Two days ago, Netanyahu called for elections in September and prepared his parliamentary party to dissolve the Knesset today. But all the while, Netanyahu and Mofaz had been working to spring a national unity government on an unsuspecting country.

At 2:30am Israel time, the two leaders went to the Knesset and announced the agreement to their flabbergasted political colleagues and dozing legislative reporters.

What is behind the agreement?

Primarily, the answer is stability. By bringing Kadima’s 28 Knesset members into the coalition, the prime minister has ensured another 18 months in power. Kadima is the largest party in the Knesset – one seat larger than Likud. By joining, the coalition stands at 94 members in a 120-seat chamber. That’s pretty solid in coalition government terms.

According to Netanyahu and Mofaz, Israel has much to gain from the next few months of stability. They are talking up a “responsible” peace process and are promising electoral reform – something many Israelis have long awaited.

And both know, Israelis like broad coalition governments - and this will be the broadest in Israel’s history.

There are of course also political considerations. Kadima is polling at around 11 seats. Mofaz’ interest in not going to elections is obvious. Parties in the ascendancy, according to public opinion research – the Labor party upping from eight to 18 seats and the new Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party polling at 10 seats - have just had the electoral wind taken out of their sails.

The current Knesset session was set to face several challenges. The Tal Law, which allows ultra-religious youths to defer Israel’s mandatory army service, expires this summer and was likely to drive apart the current coalition.

The Yisrael Beiteinu party, a coalition member at 15 seats in this Knesset, had been set to shepherd a bill through the Knesset related to the civil-religious reality in Israel – a bill that would have caused a rift within the former coalition, with the ultra-religious parties.

And there was a great deal of doubt surrounding the passing of the state budget in this Knesset session.

All this leaves the prime minister far less exposed to the competing demands of smaller parties in his coalition. In effect, he has bought government stability with a broad national unity government at a remarkably cheap price – making Mr. Mofaz a deputy prime minister.

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