Why Bibi? Why Mofaz?

Why Bibi? Why Mofaz?

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

The sudden turn overnight in Israeli politics presented political analysts and journalists with a field day of speculation. Netanyahu’s decision to broaden the governing coalition into a Government of national unity; to not call the general elections he was about to announce; and to agree to address revision of the Tal Law, election reform, and the peace process constitute a slap at some of the current members of what is now a huge coalition of 94 members out of a 120 member Knesset. At the same time, for Shaul Mofaz it is an absurd turnaround following his Kadima victory after which he had told an Haaretz interview that he would never join the Netanyahu Government, despite his extremely close personal relationship with the entire family.   

Mofaz, despite his military record, has been seen as a political opportunist. Yes, the Tal Law will be changed, but the Court had already ordered action by August 1; there will be some discussion with the Palestinians for which he may well be the point person to appease the U.S. and the Quartet but they are unlikely to move anywhere until after the U.S. elections in November and the Iran picture gains greater clarity and/or finality. As for electoral reform—which Israel desperately needs—there may well be some tinkering with list percentages and the primary systems or an electoral study commission established, but single member districts or party responsibility or major overhaul are exceedingly unlikely. Mofaz is motivated in all likelihood by an opportunistic sense of the moment to permit him time to build himself up and Kadima prior to the October 2013 elections.

While Bibi knows all this full well, bringing in Mofaz gives the Prime Minister political cover in almost all segments of the electorate where he may be soft. It also permits him to demonstrate to Washington that he is more open and sensitive to differing views; with more than three-quarters of the Knesset now in the Government. He can show that he brought in another former Chief of Staff and Defense Minister who himself was born in Iran and has not supported the more hawkish views advocated to date by the current coalition. Within the security cabinet, moreover, Bibi now has a possible foil for Barak and a force to quiet the recent array of former military and intelligence critics who have been attacking the Netanyahu Government’s policy direction on Iran.

The real losers are the other coalition members who now will either have to live with the centrist Kadima Party or bolt. Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitanu Party will probably stay the course, while the religious parties may leave over the Tal Law, since they can oppose it better outside the coalition and obstruct implementation more effectively. Meanwhile, the Labor Party and its new leader, Shelley Yachimovich, will be literally alone in the wilderness; just when they believed that new elections in September might boost them back to being a more significant opposition party.

There is one final dimension to these machinations. If Bibi now turns statesman and uses Kadima to seriously engage the Palestinians it would be huge, and would clearly challenge his older coalition partners especially the pro-settlement forces. (If there is such a turnaround by Netanyahu in the cards it will be readily evident this summer as the Government is under court orders to commence the dismantling of illegal settlements; something which Netanyahu of late has been seeking ways to circumvent.)

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