Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shocked the political establishment on Tuesday by delaying planned early elections and signing a deal with Kadima to form a 94-MK coalition, the widest coalition since 1984.
The national unity coalition formed by rotating prime ministers Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir had 97 MKs, which was the largest ever, except when Israel formed emergency governments, most notably the Six Day War coalition in 1967 that had 111 MKs.
At a Knesset press conference with Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, Netanyahu said a large coalition was needed to deal with the challenges the country is facing on the socioeconomic, diplomatic and security fronts.
He noticeably did not mention the specter of a nuclear Iran in his speech, but he later promised that the expanded government would hold “serious and responsible” deliberations on the issue.
“Israel requires stability,” the prime minister said. “When I thought our stability was in jeopardy, I was willing to go to elections. But when I saw I could form a very wide government, I understood that stability could be restored without going to elections, so I formed the widest national unity government.”
The Likud committed to Kadima to make immediate changes on four issues: equalizing the burden of army service, passing a fair state budget, changing the electoral system and advancing the peace process. The agreement stipulates that Kadima will not topple the government until the official end of its term on October 22, 2013.
A Midgam poll broadcast on Channel 10 found that 44 percent of Israelis back the deal, 37% oppose it and 19% had no opinion. Netanyahu continued to enjoy a wide lead over any possible challenger for the prime minister’s job.
Contact on forming the unity government began at a low level while Netanyahu was sitting shiva for his father, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu. They advanced in secret meetings held by Mofaz’s strategist Lior Chorev and the prime minister’s former bureau chief Natan Eshel.
The deal was finalized in marathon meetings between Netanyahu and Mofaz at the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem. Defense Minister and Independence Party chairman Ehud Barak participated in part of the meetings and the other leaders of coalition parties were updated, while other politicians were deliberately left in the dark to prevent leaks.
Eshel, who was forced to leave his post due to harassment allegations, told Channel 2 that he considered Netanyahu to be the best prime minister ever and he would do everything possible to enable him to continue to lead.
Netanyahu agreed to overcome his differences with Mofaz, who had criticized him severely on many occasions, including publicly calling him a liar.
“In political competitions there are many words,” Netanyahu said. “In political cooperation, there are a lot of actions.”
Mofaz defended his decision to risk his reputation to join the government. He said he and Netanyahu decided to put their differences behind them.
“I don’t see a problem with [my] credibility,” he said. “This serves Israel’s interest. I am sure the public is happy with it. It is very easy to remain in the opposition. But when you have 28 MKs, you have political power to make changes. Not joining the government would be irresponsible. Not joining three years ago was a historic mistake.”
Mofaz, who will hold the ceremonial title of vice premier, said he turned down an offer from Netanyahu for a portfolio, later revealed to entail responsibility for strategic affairs and negotiations with the Palestinians. While Mofaz will initially be Kadima’s only minister, the coalition agreement states that the party will be given more cabinet posts later.
Sources close to Netanyahu said that when ministers Matan Vilna’i and Yossi Peled retire from politics soon, their posts will be offered to Kadima. According to the deal, Kadima MKs will chair both the Economic Affairs and the Foreign Affairs and Defense committees in the Knesset.
The legislature had already approved dissolving itself in its first reading by a 109-1 vote at 11:30 on Monday night. Only Labor MK Ghaleb Majadle voted against.
But when the talks between Netanyahu and Mofaz advanced, the prime minister ordered a filibuster ahead of a vote on the dispersal bill in the Knesset House Committee. The Likud and Kadima factions began emergency meetings after 2 a.m. to discuss developments, eventually approving the deal.
Netanyahu called President Shimon Peres – who was on a trip to Canada – to update him on the unity government deal. The president gave the arrangement his blessing, saying a unity government is good for the the nation given the difficult challenges Israel faces.
At the House Committee meeting, lawmakers repeatedly asked why the Knesset was moving to dismantle itself now.
“I am shocked to see so many MKs vote like sheep going to slaughter,” Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev said. “If this crazy vote was by secret ballot, it would fall.”