The best political pundits assembled and arrived at the Knesset on Wednesday morning. The developing confrontation over the slated evacuation of homes in the settlement of Beit El promised for a spectacular summer drama.
The television crews set up their cameras in the press section that overlooks the Knesset plenum and surveyed the battlefield.
After three particularly dry years in parliament, the headlines characteristic of a coalition crisis were back: “Rebel ministers vow to fight to bitter end”: “The Prime Minister’s Office threatens to fire rebels”; “Right-wing activists put pressure on noncommittal MKs,” etc.
By the afternoon the excitement had almost completely died down. Not one of the ministers or deputies dared to risk being fired. No party followed up on its threat to quit the coalition.
The overwhelming majority of MKs present voted against the legislation aimed at bypassing the High Court, which ruled that the state had until July 1 to remove the five homes in dispute.
The bevy of journalists rushed to report to their editors, “Sorry, there’s no story....”
I dispute their conclusion that there is “no story.” The opposite is the case. Truly, ministers combining to take a position against that of the prime minister is undoubtedly fascinating news. But no less so is the fact that the prime minister has the strength to thwart such a rebellion in the ranks. That, too, is a “story.”
Such developments also require drawing certain conclusions and a meaningful political analysis for the future. In the skewed Israeli reality of governments whose main business is ensuring their survival, one cannot minimize the importance of a leader’s readiness to buck coalition pressures, withstand shockwaves in his own party and choose the path of national responsibility over satisfying his political partners at any price.
My first conclusion is that despite the harsh criticism initially voiced, it is now clear that Kadima’s decision to join a right-wing government provides the prime minister with plenty of room for effective internal political maneuvering.
If we were today at the height of an election campaign, in which every right-wing and religious party was fighting for power and the Likud ministers were up against each other in a primary, one could assume that the results of the Knesset vote would be quite the opposite.
The tensions between the legislative and judicial branches of government would reach new heights. Israel would be under a severe international assault. Israeli society would be embroiled in a state of ferment and mutual recriminations, just as we approach a period in which a decision on the Iranian situation requires us to take a united, unified stand.
My second conclusion is that it is now necessary for the partnership between Kadima and the Likud to move from a tactical alliance to a strategic one. The challenge facing Binyamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, who together control 55 MKs, is to make the most of the 18 months left until the next election. Not only to stave off problematic initiatives as they did this week, but to reach agreements in areas that have been avoided until now because of coalition concerns.
Two main issues are eagerly waiting to be addressed. The first is to conclude by the end of July legislation to share the burden of military and national service. The second is to advance reforms that will strengthen political stability and the ability of the executive branch to do its work.
There is broad public support for both these goals. And both Kadima and the Likud believe that this is the right time to make changes in these two areas. The veto powers of sectoral parties over particular parliamentary moves no longer exist. This is the ultimate test of the current broad coalition: To restore hope among Israelis that their leaders are capable of coming together to advance the fundamental issues at the heart of the national consensus.The writer is a former cabinet minister, Knesset member (for Kadima and previously the Likud) and head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.