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Friday, May 11, 2012
Israel's New Kind Of Coalition : What Netanyahu Can Do With Three-Quarters Of The Knesset
Israel's new coalition government will strengthen Benjamin
Netanyahu's hand on Iran. But it will also force him to address long-standing
internal issues, suggesting that Israelis, even as they trust Netanyahu on
foreign policy, are no longer willing to defer domestic change.
By Yossi Klein Halevi
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Shaul Mofaz, head of the Kadima party, right. (Ammar Awad / Courtesy Reuters)
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
-This commentary was first published in Foreign Affairs on
-Yossi Klein Halevi is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem
and a contributing editor to the New Republic