Israel's New Kind of Coalition

What Netanyahu Can Do With Three-Quarters of the Knesset

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Shaul Mofaz, head of the Kadima party, right. (Ammar Awad / Courtesy Reuters)

In forming a vast new coalition government earlier this week -- which now includes the centrist party, Kadima, in addition to right-wing factions -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has one overriding purpose: to strengthen his hand on Iran. He now has uncontested political legitimacy with which to pressure the United States against protracted negotiations with Iran and to continue threatening a preemptive attack of his own.

Yet although Netanyahu cares most about stopping the Iranian nuclear program, the immediate impetus for the unity government was domestic: a call for electoral reform and ending the exemption of ultra-Orthodox seminary students from serving in the military. Even as Netanyahu forms the expanded coalition to advance his position on Iran, he cannot ignore these internal issues -- a sign that the Israeli electorate increasingly demands that its leaders address foreign and domestic concerns simultaneously.

The unity deal is Netanyahu’s attempt to reiterate to the United States his resolve to stop Iran from acquiring atomic weapons. In March, when U.S. President Barack Obama attempted to reassure Israel that he would not allow Iran to become a nuclear power by declaring that “the United States will always have Israel’s back,” Jerusalem essentially responded, “No thanks.” Israelis will not entrust their security to any outsider, even a friend. They recall that weeks before the 1967 Six-Day War, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, as good a friend as Israel has had in the White House, refused an Israeli request to lead an international flotilla to open the Straits of Tiran, which Egypt had shut to Israeli shipping -- even though Washington had promised to do precisely that in return for an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai following the 1956 Suez War. After Johnson’s refusal, Israel launched a successful preemptive strike against Egypt.

The creation of a unity government confirms that preemption remains an option for Israel toward threats perceived as existential. And that policy has broad potential support. What’s more, the much-publicized attacks on Netanyahu’s Iran policy have to some extent been misunderstood abroad. Not even Netanyahu’s most bitter critics -- such as Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and, more recently, Yuval Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service -- have suggested that Israel could live with a nuclear Iran. The debate, instead, has been over timing. That is especially the case with Kadima head Shaul Mofaz, who said in March that an attack on Iran would be “disastrous.” Some have claimed that he may use his position in the cabinet to oppose a strike. Yet Mofaz merely condemned a “premature” operation, and stated that he would back Netanyahu if it became apparent that only an Israeli attack could stop Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, in 2008, Mofaz said that "if Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack it… [it] will be unavoidable."

In creating a resilient government, Netanyahu has, in effect, put Obama’s diplomatic initiative with Iran on probation. If negotiations fail to produce tangible results soon, or if, as Israeli policymakers fear, Obama is prepared to allow Iran to reach breakout capacity without actually producing a bomb, Israel is better positioned to strike alone.

The coalition has also strengthened Netanyahu’s policy toward the Palestinians. Although Netanyahu suggested that the new government would make advancing the peace process one of its top objectives, negotiations will likely remain stalled. Even if Netanyahu were to impose another settlement freeze, as he did in 2009, no Israeli government, let alone this one, would stop building in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem -- a Palestinian precondition for resuming peace talks. And little public pressure exists to resume the process. Even many Israelis who oppose Netanyahu agree that blame for the lack of progress hardly belongs to Israel alone. Most Israelis -- around 70 percent, according to repeated polls conducted by the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace -- support a two-state solution. But that same majority, those polls reveal, doubts the possibility of an agreement in the near future and questions whether any territorial concessions will win Israel real peace and legitimacy. That is one reason that, in six weeks of anti-government social protests last summer led by young liberal activists, the peace process went unmentioned. And now, given the uncertainty of relations with Egypt, with whom Israel shares its only successful land-for-peace agreement, Israelis are hardly prepared to risk another territorial withdrawal, especially from territories that border Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Much of the international community has profoundly misread the attitude of the Israeli public toward the occupation and peace. Contrary to what many foreign commentators have suggested, the Israeli mainstream has not accepted the status quo with smug indifference. Instead, most Israelis keenly understand the long-term dangers posed by the occupation to Israel’s international standing and to its ability to remain both a Jewish and a democratic state. All major Israeli parties now accept a two-state solution. Twenty years ago, the Labor Party opposed a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza; today, even Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, accepts the principle of Palestinian statehood. In endorsing the idea of two states for two peoples, Netanyahu negated a core ideological principle of the Likud, and has helped transform the debate over the territories from an ideological to a pragmatic issue: Under what conditions can Israel withdraw in relative safety? For many supporters, Netanyahu offers the best reassurance of protecting vital Israeli security interests in any future withdrawal.

Netanyahu now has over three-quarters of the Knesset in his government. When the prime minister founded his government three years ago, he hoped to create a unity coalition. But he failed in efforts to include Kadima, and although he did bring in Labor, it eventually quit. (A small breakaway faction, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, remained.) Still, he did exclude the Knesset’s most right-wing party, the National Union, which supports the most militant settlers. And with this new coalition, Netanyahu can credibly claim to represent the broad Israeli center.

Although the new unity government will allow Netanyahu to focus on Iran, it will also force him to address critical domestic issues. For the first time, the political system is positioned to deal with long-standing structural and ideological distortions that threaten the cohesion of Israeli society. Foremost among those is the wholesale exemption of thousands of ultra-Orthodox seminary students from the military draft -- a separatism that is, thanks to coalition politics, subsidized by the Israeli mainstream. Along with ending the mass exemptions, this coalition will need to reform the electoral system to prevent the ultra-Orthodox minority from continuing to dictate terms to every coalition.

The new government will aim to implement a system of universal conscription that will allow the ultra-Orthodox to perform alternative national service instead of joining the military. This has significant implications for another community outside the mainstream -- Israel’s 1.2 million Arab Israelis. Aside from the Druze, a minority Islamic sect, Arab Israelis are exempt from the draft. Yet some form of national service is essential in strengthening the Arab case for equality in a society whose Jewish men devote three years to the nation’s defense and then continue in reserve duty into their forties.

Initial polls suggest that the Israeli public largely doubts that the new coalition will change the electoral system or enact universal conscription. Given the cynical nature of Israeli politics, the skepticism is understandable. But this time it may be wrong. Mofaz knows that his political future depends on showing results. And Netanyahu understands that if he fails to exploit the historic opportunity for change that he has created, he will face the public’s harsh judgment.

Still, with the issue of Iran pressing, time is not on the government’s side. Domestic change must begin quickly. And given that Netanyahu prefers to negotiate with ultra-Orthodox leaders and establish a gradual transition to conscription, that process has to start before potential security emergencies intervene and sideline internal affairs.

Whether or not Netanyahu can solve these problems, the fact that he cannot ignore them, even at this fateful moment with Iran, indicates a profound transformation of Israeli politics. Israelis are no longer willing to defer domestic change. Ironically, the more daunting Israel’s external threats, the more the public has turned inward. That is an expression of Israeli pragmatism: since the average Israeli believes that he personally cannot affect developments in the region, then better focus on problems closer at hand.

Zionism once promised that Israel would become an equal, accepted member of the community of nations. Besieged and embattled, it is hardly that. But Zionism did fulfill one pledge: to teach Jews how to defend themselves. For now, at least, self-defense from existential threat defines Israeli politics. Yet as even this coalition of national emergency proves, Israel’s leaders can no longer ignore the longing of their people for a politics of normalcy.

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