Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The 70-Day Reign of King Bibi (Part I)

Like all celebrity marriages, the nuptials were far more exciting than the divorce.
Seventy days ago, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu arranged the creation of Israel's largest unity government in the annals of the young country's politics. Composed of an unassailable super-majority of 94 parliamentarians (out of 120), the new unity government promised that Bibi would be able to live out the full 4 years of his premiership free of even the occasional nuisance of a symbolic no-confidence vote in the Knesset, given that Israeli law requires such a motion garner the signatures of 40 MKs. With a wall-to-wall parliamentary coalition, not even that often futile maneuver lay on the horizon. Ninety-four seats meant that Bibi could claim to his nation and to his dwindling list of allies that whatever path he chose -- on Iran, on the Palestinians, on the question of conscription, on the national budget -- he had the full support of his democracy. On May 28, his face was draped on the cover of Time magazine and he was proclaimed "King Bibi." He was the master of his domain.
Some in the Israeli media and amongst the sherds of what remained of the opposition howled in disdain. But what Bibi was attempting was nothing short of a complete realignment of Israeli politics -- he was attempting to revive the grand coalition that once made up his own party, the right-nationalist Likud, which had been ripped apart in 2005 by its creator, Ariel Sharon. Back in 2005, facing a drumbeat of internal opposition to his Gaza disengagement from within Likud, Sharon created a brand-new vanity party of moderate Likudniks called Kadima (literally: "Forward"). A few spurned members of the main opposition Labor, including no less than Shimon Peres, joined the new party, but it left the Likud diehards (under the leadership of Netanyahu) an isolated boutique opposition party, to be consigned to irrelevancy for the next election cycle.
Within a few short months of its creation, Sharon stroked out, and the raison d'etre for Kadima disappeared. But Kadima somehow managed to survive the ensuing crisis as the accidental caretaker PM Ehud Olmert squeaked out an electoral victory in 2006 and kept the Kadima moderates in power. Olmert, who presided over a stormy and militaristic premiership, was in turn eventually accused by the State Attorney of rampant corruption, and was forced to resign, leading to a power struggle between lesser personalities (former Likudniks all) in the progressively more pointless grab bag known as Kadima.
When Bibi's Likud lost the election (Kadima actually won one more seat than Likud) but won the default opportunity to assemble his premiership in 2009, he had a choice. Netanyahu could form a right-center coalition with Kadima, or a hard-right coalition with smaller nationalist and religious parties. He chose the latter route, leaving Kadima outside. Netanyahu would have a second chance to be PM.
What remained of Kadima was a party with no galvanizing personality and no political agenda. Internal squabbling ensued. The leader who had presided over Kadima's electoral "almost" victory, former Likudnik Tzipi Livni (who couldn't muster religious or right wing support in her attempt to form a government), was challenged over her bumbling record by former Likudnik Shaul Mofaz, who promised Kadima functionaries a different outcome. In internal elections earlier this year, Mofaz trounced Livni. Then, as the prospect for early elections (which pollsters predicted Bibi would handily win) loomed over the country, Mofaz struck a deal with Bibi, and brought his bloc of 28 MKs into a numerically unprecedented national unity government. Simultaneously, Livni quit the party, and resigned her political post as Knesset member. Mofaz could also read polls, and understood that the Israeli electorate had grown weary of Kadima. Early elections (which might have been held in September) would spell the effective end of Kadima. So Mofaz traded certain electoral demise in 3 months' time for a seat at the cabinet table for 16 months.
That was 70 days ago.
What prompted all this maneuvering in early May was a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court that the government of Israel's conscription law was unconstitutional. A makeshift and temporary law had been crafted in 2002 which had attempted to address the inequity of Israel's conscription regime (which granted an automatic deferment to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students) by essentially encoding the inequity into law, and it was this so-called "Tal law" that was judged unconstitutional. The unconstitutional law had expired, and by Supreme Court decree the government of Israel had  until August 1 to come into compliance. The first among many intractable domestic issues which Bibi and Mofaz committed themselves to was to construct an equitable resolution for Israel's illegal conscription farce, all by the August 1 deadline.
Seventy days ago, Bibi made it sound like he was finally ready to accede to the demands of the secular Israeli majority, and together with Mofaz he would craft a historic conscription law which would bring the ultra-Orthodox citizens of Israel into the shared responsibility of national service. But when the moment of decision came, King Bibi reverted to form. It is now a well-known pattern of his leadership: Netanyahu consistently prefers stasis over any change that threatens his comfortable rule. 
Mofaz, known to change positions on a dime, this time stood his ground, and yesterday the national unity government dissolved after the Kadima parliamentarians voted 25 to 3 to leave the government.
And with that, the grand reunification of Likud ended. And with it came the end of Mofaz's attempt to resuscitate Kadima and assert his relevancy as a potential national leader.
BUT, the withdrawal of Kadima does not mean the collapse of Netanyahu's ruling coalition (now still a respectable 66-seat majority). No longer a wall-to-wall PM, but merely a PM presiding over a hard-right coalition, former King Bibi still rules the land. There is even the possibility that some  holdouts might jump the sinking ship of Kadima and join Bibi's Likud, making his coalition even more solid. Whether elections come as scheduled in October 2013 or a bit earlier, Bibi -- tarnished by this maneuvering but not mortally wounded -- remains PM. 
What does it all mean (for Iran, for the Arab-Israeli conflict, and for Israeli domestic politics)? For that, I'll have another posting later today.

Part II can be found here.

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