Two of my favorite Israel bloggers, Allison Good and The Camel’s Nose, are having an entertaining debate on Twitter and their respective blogs over the survival prospects of the Likud-Kadima coalition government. For those who haven’t been following along, Bibi Netanyahu disbanded the Kadima-led Plesner Committee charged with coming up with a solution to the problem of Haredi and Arab exemptions from military service following the resignations of Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi, and the Haredi representative from the committee. AG thinks that this means that the coalition government is going to be gone by the end of the week because Bibi is ultimately going to stick with his more rightwing coalition partners and because Shaul Mofaz realizes that he is getting nowhere with Netanyahu and would rather resume his erstwhile role as opposition leader. In contrast, TCN thinks that the coalition will last because Bibi is a cunning politician and will be able to ride out the current storm and because Mofaz gains nothing by quitting the government.
I hate to pick sides here, but since I was planning on writing about this anyway before the two of them beat me to it, I have to go with The Camel’s Nose on this one. Allison’s logic is good, particularly on the issue of Bibi being a creature of habit with a long history of being risk-averse when it comes to big picture policies who tends to placate his rightwing base, but I will add a few reasons to the ones already set forth by TCN in explaining why I think the coalition holds.
First, Netanyahu issued a statement warning the Haredi parties that if a compromise is not reached, Haredim will be subject to the draft beginning August 1. This angered the Haredi parties to no end and they ripped him for issuing an ultimatum, and it seems like a strange move for Bibi to make if he is ultimately going to ditch Kadima and side with Shas and UTJ. Why warn them about coming back to the table if the intention is to back them to the hilt anyway? If the answer is that equalizing the burden of service is popular with the Israeli public and issuing the hardline statement is all public relations showmanship, then Netanyahu is setting himself for a severe backlash if he then goes and lets Haredim off the hook for military or national service. Furthermore, it bears noting that Haredi voters are not part of Netanyahu and Likud’s base – they historically have been willing to join any government, left or right, that has been willing to buy their support with subsidies and key ministries. Netanyahu’s base is the settler and religious Zionist movements, and they hold no water for Haredi draft dodgers. All of this reads to me like Bibi is gearing up to make Haredim subject to the draft, and only disbanded the Plesner Committee because it seemed like a futile exercise once YB and the Haredi rep had both quit and not because he is trying to protect the Haredi exemption.
Second, I don’t think that Mofaz has any intention of quitting the coalition. His threat to do so is an empty one since there is no reason for him to wait – if he was actually going to pull out of the government, he would have done so when Netanyahu pulled the plug on the Plesner Committee, which was Mofaz’s pet project. Mofaz has already been sufficiently embarrassed to justify leaving, and the fact that he hasn’t done so indicates to me that he is looking for excuses to stick around. That Mofaz brought Kadima into the government does not change the fact that Kadima’s poll numbers were badly sinking before the coalition deal was struck and that Kadima was increasingly looking like a party that would not survive more than one additional election. Leaving the coalition now, as TCN points out, probably dilutes Mofaz’s power since he is not by any means a natural leader of a left of center opposition, and that goes double now that he has tainted himself in the left’s eyes by joining hands with Bibi in a unity government.
Finally, there is the fact that Netanyahu created this monster of a coalition for a reason, and we need to think about what that reason might be. Sure, I think he liked the idea of presiding over a government with virtually no real opposition to speak of, but he also wasn’t accumulating numbers just for the sole sake of accumulating numbers. I think that creating such a large coalition was meant to give Netanyahu room to maneuver on precisely this issue – equalizing the burden of service and ending the Haredi military exemption – since it is a popular position and one that he could not pursue before without bringing down his government. The day after the news of the deal with Kadima broke, I wrote the following:
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.
This logic still holds. Putting Kadima in charge of the committee tasked with replacing the Tal Law was a high profile move and Netanyahu staked a lot on it, and the idea that after all that he would now just turn around, kill the committee and not allow its recommendation to see the light of day, and end the unity government, putting him right back where he started – namely, a coalition that is bound to break apart and bring down the government since Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas/UTJ cannot coexist for much longer – doesn’t make sense to me. Ultimately, the deal with Kadima was about Netanyahu’s survival as prime minister without having to call early elections, and so he needs Mofaz to stick around almost as much as Mofaz needs him in order to remain relevant. So, my prediction is that after everyone gets in their saber rattling, Netanyahu and Mofaz will work out some sort of arrangement, the Haredi parties will leave the coalition in a huff, and the unity government will remain in place. We should know by the end of the week if I am right or if I am wrong in a big way. And if it’s the latter, consider this my preemptive apology and huge tip of the hat to Allison Good.