Israel’s political landscape was just redrawn last week with the surprise agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima party head Shaul Mofaz to form a new government rather than hold national elections in September. I discussed the implications of this development with former New York Times diplomatic correspondent Bernard Gwertzman in an interview featured on CFR.org and published below.
Domestic Focus for Israel’s Coalition
May 14, 2012
Interviewee: Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former defense minister Shaul Mofaz, the head of the Kadima Party, announced on May 8 a national unity government that will be the largest coalition in Israel’s history and will remain in power until elections in 2013. The sudden agreement by Israel’s two leading parties, which forestalled new parliamentary elections that had been scheduled for September, was made primarily for domestic reasons, not to prepare for war against Iran, says CFR Middle East expert Robert M. Danin. Danin says Israelis’ priorities are "economic and social." While Iran is something to which the Israeli security establishment led by Netanyahu pays close attention, says Danin, "there is not a widespread clamoring for a strike against Iran at a popular level within Israel." The emphasis on domestic issues also eclipses the peace process with the Palestinians, says Danin, noting that "there is a widespread and shared sense that the system of governance needs to change. Only then do they talk about promoting a peace process."
What’s the most important aspect of this unprecedented arrangement between Netanyahu and Mofaz?
The most significant aspect is that you now will have the largest coalition government in Israel’s history. Some 94 members of the Knesset’s 120 members will be inside the government. This makes it a very strong government, and it means that no one party can bring down the government. This gives Prime Minister Netanyahu tremendous stability and tremendous room to maneuver.
He and Mofaz had a press conference in which he outlined four areas they wanted to work on. Could you outline these?
The four elements were: 1) promoting legislation to bring the ultra-Orthodox into national service within two months; 2) changing the system of government in Israel by the end of the year; 3) passing a budget; and 4) promoting what they called a "reasonable peace process."
What’s significant and interesting about this--and I have just returned from Israel--is that if you read outside commentary you would think that Israel is at the center of a regional tsunami because of the Arab uprisings, the Syrian bloodshed, and instability all around. But the priorities in Israeli politics right now are domestic, economic, and social, and that’s reflected in those four agenda items. Three out of the four items are purely domestic issues having to do with governance and the way Israel is run, either in terms of bringing one segment of society into national service or passing a budget or actually reforming the system of governance, which is a recognition that there is a widespread and shared sense that the system of governance needs to change. Only then do they talk about promoting a peace process.
I’m always confused about the fact that there are so many parties in the Israeli government. Is this an effort to narrow the number of parties?
Not necessarily, but we have yet to learn exactly what they have in mind. Overall, what you’ve had in Israel is a system in which, because of the precariousness of the parliamentary system, it’s very difficult for the prime minister and his ruling party to carry out its agenda. It needs a coalition to bring that about, and what you’ve had are coalitions of not necessarily like-minded parties, but rather a coalition in which deals are made, in which smaller interests are addressed. There’s a large-scale consensus amongst "middle Israel," the vast majority of the Israeli populace that lives in the coastal plain of Israel, that special interests get a disproportionate amount of attention and resources thrown at them in order to maintain political coalitions. That’s what they want to try to change.
The ultra-Orthodox have been exempt from national service. Will it be difficult to change this, or is bringing them into the national service something the new coalition can achieve?
There is the potential for significant change. Israel has changed its system several times. Israel originally had the electoral system it has today, but from 1996 to 2001, they changed it. They enacted a system in which the prime minister was elected separately from the party list. This proved to be worse than the previous system, and so they went back to the status quo ante in 2001. Still, the fact that they were able to change the system before shows it can be done.
Now there’s a yearning for even more dramatic change. The fact that Mofaz and Netanyahu basically have an agreement that this government will last until the end of its tenure, which is late next year, means that there’s a significant amount of time. One of the significant elements of Israeli politics is that for the last several years, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s been looking over his shoulder at the Yisrael Beiteinu party, headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which has had fifteen seats in the Knesset. This agreement frees up Netanyahu from being dependent on any single party anymore for his government. It means that he has a lot of space and power to really bring about dramatic change, and he’s identified domestic change as the real national agenda.
Mofaz in the past has been more publicly eager for an agreed solution with thePalestinians than Netanyahu has seemed to be. Will this open the way for substantive new negotiations with the Palestinian Authority?
There are two important elements here. First, the center of gravity within the coalition now has shifted more towards Israel’s center. Bringing in a centrist party of twenty-nine really tilts the scales towards the center, and the fact that Kadima does want an active peace process is going to enable Prime Minister Netanyahu to pursue a more activist approach. He won’t be hamstrung by the far right. The second element is that Mofaz has reportedly been anointed to explore possibilities with the Palestinians. So that argues for renewed efforts with the Palestinians.
That would be welcomed in the United States, where the administration has seemed to shelve its prior interest in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Another significant international issue that has been the topic of speculation is whether this accord will reduce the likelihood of Israel pursuing military action against the Iranian nuclear establishment on its own.
I don’t think this accord was done necessarily to set the stage for action against Iran. That’s the way many observers are reading it. I see the accord more in terms of domestic politics, but it does give the prime minister much greater freedom of maneuver on foreign policy, and traditionally Israel has formed strong national unity governments on the eve of wars. This is a peacetime, broad-based national unity government, so Israel is better placed politically to take military action if it wants to, but I don’t think that this is necessarily an indicator. But it means that Prime Minister Netanyahu has a broad-based support for not taking military action if that’s what this government decides to do.
So you don’t see Iran as the basis for this accord?
It’s very hard to extrapolate meaning vis-à-vis Iran from this agreement. The arrangement was driven by domestic considerations. A majority of Israelis polled as Israel was preparing for elections did not want elections right now. So the move itself is actually popular. Israelis did not necessarily want to go to the polls right now.
There had been an intense debate in Israel on why he [Netanyahu] was going for elections right now. One school had it that he wanted to have elections prior to the American elections, because either electorally he’d do better now or he’d be able to renew his mandate and still have time to take action on Iran with a new mandate. But the more compelling explanation has to do with Kadima [an offshoot of the Likud party and founded by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 to support his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza]. The Kadima leader, former Prime Minister Tzipi Livni, had just been replaced by Mofaz.
Kadima was polling extremely badly. It looked as though, if elections were held in September, Kadima would be reduced significantly in size in the Knesset. Netanyahu saw an opportunity to achieve what he had long wanted, which was to bring Kadima back into his government. Originally, Netanyahu wanted to do it through elections, by destroying them electorally, but this agreement does the same thing, without elections. It re-empowers and re-strengthens Likud, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in 2013, when Israel does go to elections, Kadima may no longer exist. Kadima may actually be part of Likud again, which is one of the reasons many people are upset by this.
Mofaz is an Iranian Jew himself. How eager is he to attack Iran?
There is not a widespread clamoring for a strike against Iran at a popular level within Israel. What was so striking in visiting Israel is there was just no sense that you’re visiting a country that is about to go to war, which is not to say that’s not the case. But the point is that Iran does not dominate popular sentiment. There’s not a sense of either "We’re about to go to war " and that either we should or we shouldn’t. It just isn’t a top-level issue on the national agenda. But as reflected in those four pillars of the coalition agreement, it is not at the top of national priorities at a popular level. To be sure, this is something that’s consuming the prime minister and his national security team, and they feel a tremendous weight of responsibility for dealing with this. So I don’t want to diminish it either. But at a popular level, Israel does not feel like a country that’s about to go to war, nor are Israelis consumed with this issue of Iran either way.