For anyone paying attention to the news this weekend, it appeared that Kadima was on the ropes. There were reports that a faction of Kadima MKs was set to leave and join Likud, while another group of more left-leaning Kadima members were plotting to leave and either form their own party or join up with Labor or Meretz. As of today, however, it seems that the rebels have been foiled for now. Finally, Shaul Mofaz shows why he was a top general! Instead of breaking away, the four Kadima MKs who had allegedly agreed to move over to Likud are now going to be referred to the Knesset House Committee as secessionists and if they are found to have tried to secede then they will not be able to run again under the Kadima banner.
The reason the four cannot just leave on their own is, in a bit of dark humor, a legacy of Likud trying to entice Mofaz to do the very same thing for which he is now denouncing his own members. Before 2009, if a faction of MKs wanted to break away from their party, they needed to have the votes of 1/3 of the party’s Knesset parliamentarians. In 2009, however, Bibi Netanyahu passed a bill through the Knesset that is known as the Mofaz Law, since its sole purpose was to entice Mofaz to leave Kadima, which at the time was controlled by Tzipi Livni. The Mofaz Law eliminated the 1/3 requirement and instead enabled a group of seven MKs to leave a party, which was coincidentally the number of Kadima members who were reputedly unhappy under Livni’s stewardship and considering joining Mofaz and returning to Likud. Mofaz himself denounced the law and did not end up jumping ship, but the law is still in force. Reports over the weekend were that a group of seven had been lined up, but this turned out to be premature, despite the fact that Likud members were reportedly bragging about having held discussions with half of the Kadima MKs.
Why did this gambit fail? For one, it was organized by the wrong person. Tzachi Hanegbi, who was trying to organize the group of Kadima rebels to jump ship and was going to be named Home Front Defense Minister in return, is not currently a member of the Knesset after having been convicted of perjury. For him, this is a cost-free action since he doesn’t have much to lose by incurring the wrath of Mofaz and the Kadima leadership, but that is not the case for the MKs. Either the larger group of seven got spooked by something or they did not like what they were hearing from Likud, but they were taking a bigger chance by attempting to leave than Hanegbi is and might have suspected that he was using them for no other reason than to get himself back into the cabinet. Had the move to Likud been organized by an MK, perhaps the story this morning might be different.
Second, it’s possible that Netanyahu himself fouled this up by inexplicably presenting his watered down Tal Law replacement plan to the cabinet yesterday. It is essentially a sellout to the Haredi parties that calls for only 6000 Haredim to be drafted annually and calls for a draft exemption age of 26, and does away with any personal sanctions for draft dodgers. After basically giving Haredim another free pass, it would have been tough for the Kadima MKs to go, as the Plesner plan was far more popular than the one that Netanyahu just announced and the optics would have been terrible for the Kadima rebels to join Likud the day after Bibi made it clear that he is putting his Haredi coalition partners’ interests above popular sentiment.
This appears to be Bibi’s first real strategic blunder to date. For whatever reason, the Kadima MKs are staying put for now and he still has to deal with his awkward coalition that contains Shas/UTJ and Yisrael Beiteinu, who are very much at odds. If the Kadima members had joined Likud, he would have been able to more or less ignore YB, but now he is stuck with the same problem he had before the Kadima unity deal. In addition, the polls on Likud are all over the place with some indicating that Likud is losing popularity over the Plesner Committee fiasco and others indicating that Likud will increase their margin in the next election. So as things currently stand, Netanyahu began the weekend with the prospect of picking up Knesset seats without having to call elections, and ended the weekend right back where he started but is now saddled with a Tal Law albatross around his neck of his own making. My hunch is that he thought the Kadima rebels jumping ship was a done deal and he then took the opportunity to shore up Shas and UTJ support with his Tal Law replacement bill. There have been rumors today that Netanyahu is now going to call an early election within 90 days, and then quick refutations from the prime minister’s office that these rumors are wrong. Elections would make sense if Bibi had expected to have a larger Likud this morning but now doesn’t and thinks he might reasonably pick up the majority of voters who cast their ballots for Kadima in 2009, but given the polls that show Likud dropping and the fact that he just signed on to what is sure to be a massively unpopular draft law, I think that the rumors of early elections are probably unwarranted. Whatever the case may be, this has not been one of Netanyahu’s better political sequences.