In March 2009, about a month after the elections for the 18th Knesset, Binyamin
Netanyahu, the candidate who had been charged by the president with the task of
forming a new government, stood at a strategic crossroads: Should he establish a
pragmatic, centrist government with Kadima and Labor, or a right-wing
government, with the religious parties and Labor?
Netanyahu’s instinct was
clear: to establish a coalition with Labor’s Ehud Barak and those he saw as his
“natural partners” – those who had recommended that the president give him the
opportunity to form a government. But Netanyahu had a problem. Barak was
facing sharp opposition from within his party; it was by no means clear that the
Labor Party would participate in the coalition.
Netanyahu was not
thrilled with the prospect of standing at the head of a “classic” right-wing
coalition, whose parliamentary room for maneuver would be limited and whose
diplomatic room for maneuver would be nonexistent. Therefore, he turned to Tzipi
Livni, the head of Kadima, and suggested that the two of them authorize their
respective confidants to discreetly examine the parameters and principles for
possible coalition cooperation.
Livni placed that responsibility on my
shoulders, while Netanyahu appointed Gideon Sa’ar, then the head of the Likud
faction (and today the education minister). After just 48 hours of secret
discussions and meetings between Sa’ar and myself, with constant consultation
with Netanyahu and Livni, it became apparent that the objective differences that
divided Kadima and the Likud were bridgeable.
Netanyahu was wise enough
to recognize that Livni, who had skillfully led negotiations with the
Palestinians as foreign minister in the previous Olmert government, would have
to play a central and dominant role in those peace negotiations in the new
government too. Livni, for her part, did not deny that, according to
Israeli tradition, ultimate authority in the diplomatic process rests with the
prime minister – a tradition that was reflected under the Olmert government as
Netanyahu made generous offers to Kadima regarding the staffing of
senior government positions. Livni displayed a pragmatic approach regarding the
sensitive topic of prime ministerial rotation, although she correctly asserted
her right, as head of the Knesset’s largest party, to serve as prime minister
for a substantial proportion of the government’s term.
On an array of
other issues as well – including the coalition’s diplomatic platform, electoral
reform and the delineation of authority between the prime minister and his
deputy – breakthroughs were achieved. Our working model was based on the
coalition agreement that enabled Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres to maintain a
relatively stable partnership between 1984 and 1988, including the fulfillment
of an unprecedented agreement allowing for the prime ministership to be rotated
halfway through the term.
Shamir and Peres overcame a vast, profound
ideological gulf and bitter personal rivalry, and found a way to work together
harmoniously. It seemed reasonable to hope that Netanyahu and Livni, two leaders
characterized by rational thinking, would be able to find the common ground in
which to garner the support of the Israeli mainstream.
Based on the
preparatory work performed by Sa’ar and myself, Netanyahu and Livni agreed to
open an indepth, detailed dialogue on diplomatic matters. But then a development
occurred that reshuffled the cards: Labor’s Barak managed to attain his party’s
support for joining a Netanyahu-led government. Netanyahu was spared the choice
between a unity government and a right-wing government. Now he could have his
cake and eat it too: He could avoid a rift with his partners from the right, and
he could build a partnership with the opposing camp, which was seen as being
more left-leaning than Kadima.
Thus ended the effort to establish a
Likud-Kadima coalition. It was my sense that neither of the two party leaders
involved mourned the failure. Netanyahu preferred Barak as his number two,
because he understood that the Labor Party head had already come to terms with
the possibility that he would not return to the prime minister’s seat. Livni
felt there was no real value in partnering with the Likud anyway, in light of
her skepticism over Netanyahu’s willingness to offer bold concessions to the
On March 31, 2009, Netanyahu presented his government to
the Knesset and it was approved.
DURING THE 20 months that have elapsed
since then, there have been two important developments: First, Netanyahu has
adopted a more flexible stance, bringing him much closer to Kadima’s centrist
views. Even if this is only tactical flexibility, designed to widen his room for
maneuver with the American government, it is nonetheless a highly important
shift. Second, the Labor Party, including Ehud Barak, has recognized that
without substantive diplomatic process, its remaining in the coalition is likely
to end its relevance among moderate voters.
The combination of these two
developments leads one to conclude that Netanyahu, if he truly wants to proceed
in the diplomatic process, as he so fervently declares, will lose his current
coalition. If he capitulates to his partners on the right, he will lose the
Labor Party, and then his shrunken coalition will be living on borrowed
This is the time to renew the dialogue between Kadima and the
Likud. This is the time to examine – with genuine, serious intentions, and not
as part of “blame game” tactics – whether the time that has passed since the
previous failed attempt has reduced or enlarged the capacity of the leaders of
the two largest parties to operate side by side to advance Israel’s
Levi Eshkol and Menachem Begin did it before the Six Day War;
Shamir and Peres did it to successfully combat rampant inflation and the painful
consequence of Israel’s ongoing presence in Lebanon; Sharon and Peres did it to
defeat the second intifada. Now, it’s Netanyahu’s and Livni’s turn.
writer is a former Kadima MK.