On Monday night, Israelis went to bed still expecting to vote for a new government later this year. They woke up Tuesday morning to a radical new political order: Overnight, the centrist main opposition Kadima party had joined the conservative Likud-led government, giving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unprecedented control of 78 percent of the Knesset (Israeli parliament). Newly tapped Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz agreed to the deal in exchange for becoming deputy prime minister. Elections have now been pushed back to October 2013. Who wins, and who loses, in this drop of a political "atomic bomb"?
The obvious big winner in the deal is Netanyahu, who just made himself one of Israel's strongest prime ministers ever, says Aaron David Miller at CNN. In one fell swoop he co-opted his main opponent, took unassailable control of the Knesset, and crushed a bevy of rivals, all while looking like "a veritable statesman and political genius." Netanyahu is now "the king of Israel." Instead of having to rely on his far-right partners, adds Aluf Benn in Israel's Haartez, Netanyahu can play his right flank and centrist wing off each other and do basically whatever he wants.
Israeli-Palestinian peace advocates
Mofaz's decision to join Netanyahu's government is "arguably the smartest move by any Israeli peace advocate in a long time," says JJ Goldberg at The Jewish Daily Forward. It gives him "a voice in shaping policy toward both Iran and the Palestinians," specifically by putting his well-regarded two-stage Palestinian peace plan on the table. Netanyahu's never really wanted to cut a deal with the Palestinians, says Carlo Strenger at Haaretz, but with his hard-right faction weakened, he has to either embrace Mofaz's bold plan to end the century-old conflict or "go down in history as the man who destroyed any option for doing so."
Mofaz, an Iranian-born former Israeli army chief of staff and defense minister, has been a vocal critic of Netanyahu's threats to unilaterally attack Iran. Instead, he wants to "make Iran America's problem," and he can "reinforce this approach now that his bloc of 28 Kadima Knesset members is part of the coalition," says Miller at CNN. Bottom line: "The new unity government reinforces the obvious: No war with Iran in 2012."
The Netanyahu-Mofaz deal saved Kadima from a huge drubbing in the scrapped September elections, but it also prevented big gains in the now-marginalized parties outside of the Likud coalition. The Labor Party was poised to make the biggest gains in the elections, so new Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich is "the biggest loser," says Yossi Verter at Haaretz. Still, at least Yacimovich now gets to lead the "shriveled, thin, powerless, 26-member opposition." On the other hand, rising center-left political star Yair Lapid, a former TV news anchor whose new party was gaining in the polls, won't "even be relevant in 18 months."
One of the four stated goals of the new unity government is to do away with the Tal Law, which gives ultra-Orthodox Jewish men an automatic exemption from serving in the Israeli army. The Israeli Supreme Court has ordered an end to the unpopular exemptions, but the religious parties in Netanyahu's coalition blocked any reforms to the law by threatening to bring the government down. Now, free from "the baggage of the religious right," Netanyahu can kill the law at will, and claim the credit, says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post.
Obama and Netanyahu have had some famous clashes over the Palestinian peace process, and now that the Israeli leader is untouchable and won't face elections for 18 months, "liberal Zionists and Obama administration officials who have dreamed of Netanyahu's defeat are just going to need to learn to live with him," says Jonathan Tobin at Commentary. Adding insult to injury, says The Washington Post's Rubin, "Netanyahu is riding high while his nemesis, President Obama, is struggling for his political life."