Exactly a week ago, I wrote a blog entry entitled "New Elections in Israel?" (note the question mark) which began with the line: "Nothing is a certainty in Israeli politics..." and then surveyed the skyline in anticipation of a September election. I am not claiming any prognosticative brilliance, but I will say I hedged my bets sufficiently to cover the stunning political turn of events which transpired at 2 in the morning in Israel.
This is not the first time that the citizens of Israel went to bed certain of a political outcome, only to wake up to a new political order. Almost 16 years ago, in the general elections for the 14th Kenesset, the Israeli public "went to sleep with Peres, and woke up with Netanyahu." Back on May 29, 1996, the votes had been counted, the television projections had all been made, and it was clear that night that Labor's caretaker PM Shimon Peres had won a squeaker of an election. When the morning came, Binyamin Netanyahu had a 1% lead in the real vote count, and went on to become the 27th PM of Israel.
Bibi (now the 32nd PM) did it again. Monday night the Israeli public went to sleep as the Kenesset was actually voting on dissolving itself and scheduling new elections for September 4, and by Tuesday morning the elections had been cancelled, and a new national unity government of 94 impregnable seats had been created in the middle of the night. By bringing in the 28 chairs of the Kadima party (under the leadership of former CoS and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz), Netanyahu has apparently guaranteed his second term as PM will go the full distance, until October 2013, with a legislative mandate that cannot be undermined. This is no trivial accomplishment - there hasn't been a PM that has gone a full 4-year term in 30 years.
The cynicism of the late night political marriage has reignited the use of an interesting Israeli political slang term: kombina. It means something like a "machination" or "subterfuge" - a distasteful and unworthy combination. Mofaz had inherited 28 seats when he beat Tzipi Livni for the leadership of Kadima. The polls, as I noted, were all pointing to electoral disaster for Kadima in the autumn. Understandably so, given that Kadima had nothing to show for itself despite being the largest party in the current Kenesset. Mofaz, who not too long ago - Newt Gingrich-style - called Netanyahu a "liar" and vowed on Facebook to never, ever sit in a coalition with Netanyahu, reached out to Netanyahu's people with a plan. In exchange for 17 certain months on the inside with 28 seats, Mofaz offered to give Bibi an undisputed national unity government. By proposing this kombina, Mofaz assured his relevance for 17 months, and quite likely put the last nail into the strange vanity-party created by Ariel Sharon known as Kadima.
So let's take a look at the new landscape. First - Iran. I have elsewhere contended that 2012 will not be the year that Israel attacks Iranian nuclear installations, and I stand by that prediction. For all those who speculated that snap elections were designed to prepare for an autumn attack, and for all those (me) who predicted that snap elections precluded the possibility of an autumn attack - well, we now all have to go back to the blackboard. What does a national unity government portend?
Some have argued that an impregnable national unity coalition means an attack is imminent. In the past, national unity governments in Israel have often served to provide the domestic stability required for bold military moves. How can any American President in an election year stand up against an Israeli Prime Minister brandishing 80% of the country's legislators in his pocket? By shoring up all domestic support in an absolutely unassailable majority, it is argued that the likelihood of a sooner-rather-than-later Israeli attack has increased dramatically in the last 24 hours.
I don't buy it. The closed inner cabinet which will someday vote on an attack has just been increased by one seat. Sitting around Netanyahu are now 3 Chiefs of Staff (the current Ganz, and the 2 formers: Barak and Mofaz). Ganz has publicly expressed his hesitancy, and Mofaz (who has a history of changing positions) talks of a 2-year window for making the decision. Only one of the generals, Barak, talks of a 6-9 month window. If anything, the inclusion of Mofaz makes an attack even less likely this year. Mofaz is an interesting character: Iranian born, he served as lieutenant to Yoni Netanyahu on the heroic 1976 Entebbe raid that resulted in Yoni's tragic death, he served as CoS during brother Binyamin Netanyahu's first stint as PM, and was selected by Ariel Sharon to be Defense Minister. He is tough on security, and unrepentantly changes his political colors and his counsel as the situation dictates. So there is simply no way to predict what he will now counsel inside the inner cabinet forum. It seems to me that Mofaz's inclusion means more indecision, not less.
As to the Palestinians: here I think the inclusion of Kadima points to a possible softening of Israel's stance regarding Israel-Palestine. Back in 2009, when Netanyahu was forming the current government, he had a choice: create a right-center coalition with Kadima (the largest party) or a hard right coalition (with a range of right and religious parties). Netanyahu chose the latter, and then dug in his heels against the Obama administration. With Kadima now in, as well as all the right and religious parties, there is some new room to maneuver on Palestine. I don't hold out much hope for this scenario, because as long as the rightist and religious parties stay put, nothing can really change. But in Israeli politics, nothing lasts forever.
There are a variety of deadlines built into this kombina which present political opportunities. By July 31, the new government is obliged to come up with a replacement for the Tal Law, which deals with the question of the (non-) induction of ultra-Orthodox men into military or national service. This is a very divisive domestic issue, which could unravel today's political victory. By the end of the year, the coalition is similarly obliged to come up with new protocols for the streamlining of governmental business, also a sticky wicket. Upon the arrival of these built-in deadlines, any of the coalition members, but particularly Kadima, could dissolve the agreement. Imagine for a moment Mofaz coming out before the cameras: "I tried. But Bibi is a liar, as I always contended. I walk away and wash my hands of the entire deal." And that would be that.
Bottom line: Netanyahu, facing the likelihood of an electoral victory which would have strengthened his position for 2-3 years, chose instead a kombina which likely guarantees 17 months of unimpeded leadership, and then a gigantic question mark thereafter. Mofaz, facing electoral disaster, chose instead 17 months of being on the inside, in exchange for an even bigger question mark thereafter. Quite a roll of the dice, which could come back to bite the two of them in late 2013.
There is much more to report: what does this mean for Yair Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich, who now have to wait 17 long months before they can test their messages with the Israeli public; what happens to rambunctious Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the religious parties, who until now were the pedestals of the former government coalition; what of the social justice movement and the Israeli economy; and what of former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni (now vindicated or permanently humiliated)? For now, dear readers, we will have to wait, because this blog is already too long.
In the meantime, sweet dreams.