First of all, wow. The deal to form a Likud-Kadima government is a master stroke by Bibi Netanyahu, who now gets to avoid dealing with elections and having to make a bunch of imperfect choices in putting together a coalition, while also seizing on the fact that nearly 3/4 of Israelis want to see the Tal Law gone for good. He isn’t giving up anything, gets to cut Yair Lapid off at the knees, and strengthens his bid as the most dominant Israeli politician of his generation. This is an enormous win for him.
Another big winner, perhaps even more so than Bibi when thinking about relative gains, is Ehud Barak. I wrote last week that I was confident Barak and Atzmaut would get enough votes to be seated in the Knesset and remain in the coalition, but now Barak doesn’t have to worry about that anymore. He gets to remain as defense minister and doesn’t have to keep taking symbolic stands against settlements in an effort to rebuild his constituency. Barak also seems to genuinely hate Lapid, mocking him in the past week for using a teleprompter and comparing his Yesh Atid party charter to that of the Baath party in Syria, so the fact that Lapid now goes back to being a television host for the time being must make Barak happy.
The fact that Barak is staying as defense minister is even more remarkable when considering the that it is Mofaz who cut the deal with Netanyahu to join the government. Mofaz is a former IDF chief of staff and former defense minister, and you know that he must have wanted to take Barak’s seat but is instead joining the coalition as vie premier. Certainly not a bad gig by any means, but you have to think it is his second choice. What this says to me is just how badly Netanyahu wants and needs Barak by his side in order to provide credibility and instill confidence in the Israeli public should Israel move to strike Iranian nuclear sites. Netanyahu is clearly unwilling to give him up, which again reinforces the point I have been harping on about Barak being the critical decision maker and figure to watch on Iran.
Another winner here is Shelly Yachimovich and Labor. Yachimovich has been in major pander mode lately, saying that she would join the Netanyahu government under the right circumstances and even absurdly claiming to share a lot in common ideologically with Shas and UTJ. She knew that she was facing an uphill battle in an election with Mofaz trying to siphon off social justice voters, Yisrael Beiteinu seen as the face of the battle against Haredi military exemptions, and Yesh Atid going after Labor’s main demographic. Labor as of today had no ministerial posts and was not even the largest opposition party. Now, Labor instantly vaults over Kadima to be the primary opposition party and Yachimovich has a new position as opposition leader and a larger bully pulpit. Given that she had zero chance of replacing Netanyahu and becoming the next prime minister anyway, the Likud-Kadima deal benefits her in the end as well.
In hindsight, a deal between Likud and Kadima was inevitable given Mofaz and Kadima’s free-falling poll numbers. Mofaz harbored hopes of beating Netanyahu and becoming PM, but the polls made it clear that this was not going to happen. Things were looking so bad that there were even calls in the past few days for Mofaz to make up with Tzipi Livni and bring her back into the fold. As I’ve noted previously, Mofaz had no intention of orchestrating a leadership fight with Livni and taking control of Kadima to be just another powerless politician, and it was clear that he was going to move closer to Likud if he thought he couldn’t beat Netanyahu outright. But it never occurred to me that he and Bibi would forge a deal before the elections rather than after them. Good for Mofaz for leveraging his position when he was at his most powerful, and good for Bibi for recognizing a good opportunity staring him in the face.