Last night right after the news broke that Shaul Mofaz and Kadima were joining Bibi Netanyahu’s governing coalition and that the early elections that had been announced for September 4 are now off, I wrote this post on the implications of the deal for Israeli domestic politics. On the morning after, I have a few more thoughts pertaining to how the new unity government will affect changes in Israeli foreign policy. The short version is, it won’t.
The area in which some people are expecting Israeli policy to shift with the new government is Iran. Jeffrey Goldberg thinks that the larger coalition and unity government might make it easier for Netanyahu to strike Iranian nuclear sites should he be so inclined. I think it is true that it makes doing so easier since the new coalition comprises 93 out of 120 MKs, and a unity government deciding to launch an attack takes some of the bite out of the recent cascade of criticism coming from former defense and intelligence leaders. Kadima joining the coalition, however, does not alter the basic realities that were preventing Netanyahu and Barak from carrying out a strike months ago. Israeli public opinion is still ambivalent on a unilateral Israeli strike, U.S. and world pressure to wait and give sanctions more time has not disappeared, four out of the eight Shminiya (Octet) members are still opposed, and the security and intelligence establishment have raised legitimate concerns that cannot be waved away just because Kadima joined the government. Add to all this the fact that Israel has serious renewed security concerns on its southern border with Egypt and is keeping an eye on its northern border following reports that Scud missile installations being moved closer to the border in Syria, and attacking Iran appears to be a dicey proposition.
There is also the Mofaz factor, which does not necessarily weigh in favor of a strike. Looking at Mofaz’s position on Iran, a little over a month ago he blasted Netanyahu for pushing for a strike that he deemed would be premature and ineffective, and said that he would stand with any PM who ordered an attack as the last resort but that Israel was not yet at that stage. Just yesterday, he accused Netanyahu of politicizing the issue of a strike and endangering the relationship with the U.S. Now, anything Mofaz said in the guise of campaigning must be taken with a grain of salt, but that he chose to hit Bibi hard on Iran cannot just be brushed aside so easily. It is also important to remember that Mofaz was not campaigning primarily on security or defense issues but rather donned the mantle of social justice, and was particularly targeting preferential treatment for Haredim. The deal with Likud gives Mofaz and Kadima the task of leading the committee charged with coming up with a Tal Law alternative, which is again not a security-related issue. It is easy to think that bringing a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff on board must mean that Netanyahu is seeking to add another buffer against criticism should he choose to attack Iran, but the details of Mofaz’s campaign and the particulars of the unity deal do not necessarily point to this conclusion. There are now three former chiefs of staff in the cabinet – Barak, Mofaz, and Yaalon – and based on what we know, only one of them is on board for an imminent unilateral strike on Iran. Just because the cabinet is full of generals does not mean that they are all gung ho to launch a new military adventure.
There is, however, one important way in which Israeli foreign policy might change with this unity deal, and that is the renewed empowerment of the foreign minister should Avigdor Lieberman be indicted, which I expect will happen in light of Zeev Ben Arie’s indictment and plea bargain last week. If Lieberman has to leave the government, it is safe to assume that Mofaz will take his place, and Israel will then once again have a foreign minister who is actually trusted to carry out the state’s diplomacy. This would undoubtedly be a good development should it occur, since Israel’s Foreign Ministry is too important to be left in incompetent hands.
When all is said and done, I do not think this deal is about Iran. I think it was done for domestic political considerations first and foremost. Let’s remember that while Netanyahu has faced no real challenges, Likud has not been on nearly as solid footing as its party leader. It is right now the second largest party in the Knesset – and that Kadima is the largest but is only getting one minister slot out of this deal tells you all you need to know about its long term prospects – but had been facing a new threat from Yesh Atid, a Labor bump following summer social justice protests, and a rightwing revolt within its own ranks led by Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon, and others who do not find Netanyahu sufficiently committed to the settlement cause. The deal with Kadima eliminates these problems or gives Netanyahu more time to deal with them. By bringing Kadima and Mofaz into the coalition, it increases the chances that an increasingly unpopular Kadima (polls had it coming in fourth or fifth were elections to be held in September) will simply merge back with Likud before October 2013 and undo the rift that Ariel Sharon created in order to pull out of Gaza. It also cuts the legs out from under Yair Lapid and his new party before it can really get off the ground, and while Yesh Atid might stick around and build support, October 2013 is a long ways away for a party that has no seats in the Knesset. A newly stabilized government gives Netanyahu more time to quell the growing backbench rebellion within Likud as well, and he can expect Kadima to now back him full-tilt on settlements once he backs Mofaz’s Tal Law alternative. In sum, this is move to bring in Kadima and cancel the early elections is a no-brainer that eliminates potential rival parties, strengthens Likud internally, and probably increases its vote share over what it would have gotten in September. Does it make it easier to attack Iran? Sure – Mofaz might now become Netanyahu’s Colin Powell inasmuch as his known reticence about a strike and his presence in the cabinet make it more credible should Netanyahu decide to act. But I don’t think that is the correct prism through which to view yesterday’s political machinations.
P.S. Related to all of this, Brent Sasley has a great post over at Mideast Matrix that is well worth a read because it gets to the root causes of Israel’s political dysfunction. The casual observer familiar only with the American form of government looks at the fact that the Israeli prime minister just decided on a whim to cancel his own call for early elections and put them off for over a year as a gross violation of democracy, when in fact it is par for the course in a parliamentary system. That does not mean, however, that all is well with Israeli politics, and Brent makes a great counter-intuitive argument that yesterday’s events actually strengthen Israel democracy by temporarily papering over some of the immense structural problems that exist in the system.