Wednesday, July 18, 2012

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

Earlier today in Part I I briefly recounted the back story concerning yesterday's developments in Israeli domestic politics -- the resignation of the senior coalition partner from Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu's seemingly formidable national unity government, a development not nearly as newsworthy as its creation 70 days ago.
In Part II I want to look at what this change to Netanyahu's ruling government portends.
Does this most recent bout of musical chairs in Jerusalem tell us anything about Netanyahu's threat to order his military to openly attack Iranian nuclear installations? For reasons I have explained elsewhere, neither the inclusion of the Kadima party into the governing coalition back in early May nor its recent departure serve as a marker in determining Israeli actions against Iran. Any foolish conspiracy theorist who conjures up a scenario which uses this maneuvering as a readable tea leaf concerning Netanyahu's plans for Iran, or the timing for a strike, is simply over-reaching. I go on record for a third time in as many months stating that there will be no Israeli attack on Iran in 2012. The outcome of American domestic elections has far more to do with Netanyahu's calculations than anything going on between coalition partners in Israel.
But this then brings us to the question of when Israeli voters might go to the polls, because it is my contention that Netanyahu will not strike Iran before November, 2012 (because of the US elections) nor during an Israeli election cycle (which is usually a short 90-day European-style parliamentary campaign). Here the calculation has shifted a bit.
The full life expectancy for Bibi's coalition government (a 4-year term) brings us out to approximately October, 2013. The government almost dissolved itself in late April, 2012, with anticipated elections in September. But then in a dramatic late-night machination, Bibi announced the inclusion of 28-seat Kadima into a new national unity government, which held for exactly 70 days. Now that this arrangement has dissolved, calls have suddenly arisen to move the elections to the first quarter of 2013. But for the moment these calls are no more than wishful thinking on the part of pundits and weak opposition politicians. One window of opportunity for a military operation might exist for Netanyahu between November and year's end (Israel used the pause between American elections and inauguration back in December 2008-January 2009 for Cast Lead), but if first quarter 2013 elections are held, even that window is shut.
There are forces in play that might persuade Netanyahu to opt for early elections. All the opposition parties are now in complete disarray. Snap elections would likely produce a reaffirmation of Netanyahu's continued rule with a fresh mandate. But at the same time, Netanyahu has been weakened considerably in stature by this 70-day ruse, and has thus put his reputation at greater risk than it was in April. Furthermore, the social-justice protest movement of 2011 is in the process of re-energizing. The prospect for a second summer in a row of 300,000 Tel Avivis marching against the government's failed economic policies (the first signs of a recession have arrived to the Israeli economy) can not be the backdrop against which Bibi wants to run a campaign.
What are the alternatives to Bibi? The Israeli political system tends to prefer former PMs over new faces, and Israel currently has 5 living Prime Ministers. Two of the 5 are not possibly fit to return to the job: Ariel Sharon is a vegetable in a hospital bed at Hadassah Hospital, and President Shimon Peres is 92 years old. Aside from Bibi, there is the current Defense Minister Ehud Barak and there is Ehud Olmert. Barak today is the leader of a tiny parliamentary vanity party created as cover for his defection from once powerful Labor, which he once led, and has tied his fortunes to Netanyahu. Olmert was recently exonerated by an Israeli court of serious corruption charges (but faces some further charges) and is lurking in the shadows, possibly planning to grab the reigns of the now desultory Kadima. Other than that, there is no politician on the radar screen who can emerge as a credible rival in a snap election. I'd keep my eye on Olmert.
Back to FM Lieberman & PM Netanyahu
A weakened and somewhat humiliated Netanyahu will perform as he always has: he will prefer to stay in power with his current coalition of 66 seats than face the roll of the dice which snap elections entails. But this means Bibi must mollify his current coalition partners, which he is growing less able to do. Weakened by the entire affair, King Bibi will sit on his hands as long as he can. And that means that once again -- as it was from 2009 until mid-2012, the kingmakers in the government of Israel are Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the senior coalition partner Yisrael Beiteinu party (15 seats), and Minister of Internal Affairs Eli Yishai, head of the religious Shas party (10 seats). One of the disputes between these two coalition partners was the very issue of national conscription, which brought Netanyahu to the brink of calling early elections and led to the inclusion of Kadima. That unresolved issue looms over the immediate horizon. If either of these smallish parties bolt the coalition, the government collapses. It will take all of Netanyahu's hemming and hawing to keep them in. My bet is a line from an Arik Einstein song: "Outwards, it's all for the country, but inwards, it's all for the seat." In other words, better to stay in power in a government where everyone possesses the deterrent of mutually assured destruction than face an unpredictable and fickle electorate.
What does this mean for the Arab-Israeli conflict? Here, the answer is simple -- this contraction of the national unity government into its former hard-right format does not bode well for the moribund peace process, the prospects for a 2-state solution, or the easing of tensions. Kadima had placed some flowery language in its now tattered coalition agreement about taking historic risks for peace with the Palestinians, but none of it now matters. Once again fractured Israel, the various Palestinian Hatfields and McCoys, and the United States aren't interested right now in anything involving the peace process. In fact, I expect a turn further to the right in the peace process from the revived hard-right Netanyahu government. That might be the only way Bibi can keep Lieberman and Yishai at bay.
Syria's dynasty of Alawites is unraveling in the streets of Fortress Damascus. A new Muslim Brotherhood president and legislature is locked in a struggle for legitimacy with the generals of Egypt. Palestine is absorbed with the bones of Yasser Arafat. The US is about to enter its debilitating silly season.
And King Bibi has been brought back down to earth.

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