With apologies for the delay in getting this material -- which went out to my list two days ago -- up on this site.
Israelis went to sleep last night thinking that we were on the cusp of an election campaign, and woke up this morning to the news that overnight Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had forged a unity government deal with Shaul Mofaz, head of the Kadima party.
The first of three required readings in the Knesset for legislation was done yesterday regarding the dissolving of the Knesset -- but the other two readings were blocked so that the 18th Knesset still stands.
Whether truly happy about it or not, both Shas and Yisrael Beitenu (major parties in the coalition) signed off on this. As did the Likud faction, which signed the coalition agreement with Kadima; MK Danny Danon voted against it.
This move establishes the largest coalition in Israel's history: 94 members, consisting of seven parties: Likud, Kadima, Yisrael Beitenu, Shas, Independence (Barak's break-off from Labor), United Torah Judaism, and Habayit Hayehudit.
Mofaz is pledged to seeing this through until the end of the term of the current administration -- that is, October 2013, when elections are scheduled to take place.
Likud and Kadima, in their agreement, have committed to working on "changes in the system of election and governance." That such changes are sorely needed is clear, but whether this will evolve as a good thing remains to be seen, as proposals evolve.
Also agreed upon was work on the replacement for the Tal Law -- i.e., establishment of a law that will provide an "egalitarian and fair" system for having all parts of the population share responsibility for IDF service. There is to be a gradual increase in the enlistment of the hareidi -- ultra-Orthodox -- community, but it is unclear as to whether there will be an option for alternative national service. Kadima will head the effort to draft this legislation.
This was a brilliant move for Mofaz, whose party was definitely on its way out -- with polls showing a serious loss in seats, were an election to be held soon.
Mofaz is now a Deputy Prime Minister, and Kadima will be chairing the Knesset Finance Committee. What undoubtedly is very important to him, as well, is his role in crafting the replacement for the Tal Law.
It is being said in some quarters that it was also a brilliant move by Netanyahu. Brilliant or slippery or just plain sneaky. Depends on whom you ask. My vote is still out, depending on how he now utilizes this situation. But I confess unease.
What Netanyahu has gained is the upper hand over elements who were challenging him. There is Lieberman, who, while still in the coalition, no longer has any clout: He cannot threaten to bring down the government.
And there is the right, nationalist flank of the Likud party. Netanyahu saw at the Likud Central Committee Convention that he was not solidly in control. This, in particular, distresses me. That increased nationalist control in the party was a democratic process.
Netanyahu has certainly secured increased government stability, and greater maneuverability.
One of the big losers in this move is the Labor party, which was slated, according to the polls, to gain enormously in the September election, so that it would have been a force to contend with; party chair Shelly Yachimovich is livid about what she considers to be an underhanded deal.
But from where I sit this is perhaps a positive with regard to Netanyahu's current move: Had there been elections, Labor might well have ended up as part of a new coalition -- and Labor is well to the left of what is supposed to be a centrist Kadima.
Also losing out here is Yair Lapid and his brand-new party, Yesh Atid, which is quite likely to fizzle before elections take place in some 18 months. Naftali Bennett, a one-time chief of staff for Netanyahu, had been talking about starting a new nationalist party, and this will also likely become moot as well.
A bit of background here about Mofaz and Kadima:
At the time of the last elections, Kadima actually secured one more mandate than Likud (28 - 27). But Tzipi Livni, who then headed the party, was not able to stitch together a coalition; thus did it fall to Likud and Netanyahu. Livni absolutely declined to join a unity government; there was enormous enmity between her and Netanyahu.
Over a period of time, there were rumors floating regarding the fact that a faction of Kadima that was more rightist was going to move over to Likud. That never materialized, but Mofaz was one of those about whom this was said -- that is, he was seen to be to the right within Kadima. This may be relevant now.
Shaul Mofaz does not have a reputation as a straight player with integrity -- but as a political pragmatist who plays fast and loose with words. When Ariel Sharon first broke off the Kadima party from Likud, Mofaz had written a letter to members of Likud declaring that he would never leave the party; a day later he moved over to Kadima.
This is relevant now because questions are being asked about how much of what he says can be trusted.
In one regard there is a clear dissonance between his recent words and his current behavior: Just days ago -- as head of the opposition with a national election pending -- he was criticizing Netanyahu as unfit to be prime minister. While before the Kadima primary, he had written:
"Listen up: I won't join Bibi's government. Not today, not tomorrow and not after I head Kadima on March 28. This is a bad and failed government and Kadima under my leadership will replace it in the next elections. Is that clear enough?"
And now he has signed on with him. Yachimovich is making a good deal of this.
The fact that he may not mean what he says (perhaps more so than most politicians) makes it difficult to predict where he will fall with regard to certain policies in this new unity government.
It is only weeks ago that Mofaz soundly defeated Livni for the position of head of the party, in a Kadima primary. He was formerly IDF chief of staff, and served as Minister of Defense under Sharon.
So when we finish discussing the benefits of this to Netanyahu and Mofaz, where does this leave the nation?
No election now. Greater stability. The strength of the new unity coalition makes it more possible for Netanyahu to deal with Obama with strength. All to the good -- if there is intention to stand up to Obama.
Aside from the questions of reform in government and the Tal law replacement, I see two major issues, and I cannot at this point predict how they will play out.
The first is Iran. Netanyahu is in a stronger position to take on Iran with the more solid coalition. It is well known here that he is in favor of doing so, in fact believes it necessary to do so. The question now is what has transpired in this regard in his arrangements with Mofaz.
Mofaz recently came out against attacking Iran. But that was when he was playing as the opposition -- taking stands contrary to what Netanyahu stood for. What is truly his position? He speaks about security for Israel a great deal. Will he cooperate with Netanyahu when push comes to shove on this?
A good deal is made of the fact that he is the only member of the government who was born in Iran.
The other issue of importance is "the peace process" and the government stance on defending Israel's right to build in Judea and Samaria. It is here, perhaps, that I am most unsettled. For the nationalist wing of Likud has been sidelined to some degree, and someone further to the left -- whether identified as centrist or not -- has been brought in.
There is talk about how negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs can proceed more effectively with Mofaz in his current position -- this is certainly something Mofaz himself refers to. And I want to know what this means, as we lack a "peace partner." Doesn't matter who sits in the government if the other side has destructive intentions.
Are we talking about more concessions? Are we looking at a refusal to acknowledge Jewish rights to the land? Rhetorical questions, perhaps. And prospects that bring unease.
The issue of how much Mofaz is committed to Israel's security will play into matters here. As will Netanyahu's intentions, of course.
The PA is already saying that, with the new unity government, settlements should be frozen immediately. How Netanyahu responds will give us our first clue as to what we might expect.
Theoretically, it is possible that there was a trade-off with respect to this -- with Mofaz getting a reprieve for his party and a chance to manage the Tal law replacement in return for not pushing on this issue.
And it is conceivable that a failure to bring even a tentative "deal" while there is a new "pro-peace" element in the government will ultimately highlight to the world where the failure of good intentions lies.
All theoretically possible. It should only be. But I'm not holding my breath.
Obviously, all of this must be tracked carefully over time. But at this moment in time, there is the burning issue of Givat Ha'Ulpana -- the Ulpana neighborhood of Beit El.
Yesterday, a ruling was announced from the High Court with regard to the government petition in late April that more time be given before the dismantlement of Ulpana that was supposed to take place by May 1, so that a new policy might be developed.
The Court has now said Ulpana has to be dismantled by July 1. This was confusing to many, including yours truly. What I have learned is that the government requested the opportunity to review policy, but the Court had not accepted the validity of that request -- it said, OK, take two more months, but take Ulpana down. The "two more months" was not a concession with regard to reviewing policy -- as many had assumed. (Today's announcement, I've been told, was just a reiteration of what had already been decided.)
And so now there is only one hope for Ulpana: legislation. There has been talk of this. I've written about this on more than one occasion. In fact, there was concern that the dissolving of the Knesset would not have given time for this legislation to go through.
Now there is time. The sole issue is one of intent of the government in its new formulation.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by Arlene Kushner, functioning as an independent journalist. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.