Israel woke up to an astounding new political reality Tuesday morning, one in which religious and far-right parties have lost considerable influence.
Having gone to sleep with the sound certainty that the Knesset would dissolve itself in a late-night vote, once again felling the government and leading to early elections on September fourth, the surprise of discovering a newly-formed unity government deal in the morning was palpable.
Opposition Leader Shaul Mofaz, just months into his new role atop the centrist Kadima party, decided to join the coalition government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the eleventh hour, creating one of the largest unity governments in the nation’s history (two have surpassed it). In a country where governments reach the 61-vote coalition threshold by the skin of their teeth, controlling 94 out of 120 seats – over 75% – is historic indeed. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg
Most Israelis were too caught up in the seeming political sliminess of the deal to grasp the opportunities a new political order affords. Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, whose party was polling at a distant second for the expected election, called it a “covenant of cowards.” Respected journalist and political neophyte Yair Lapid, who will have to now wait 17 months before his party can enter the Knesset, said it was a "disgusting political alliance." Ha’aretz writer Yossi Verter wrote about his “initial feelings of disgust and nausea.” On Facebook, video clips of Mofaz repeatedly calling Netanyahu an untrustworthy liar resurfaced, alongside Mofaz’s own resolute promises not to join a Netanyahu government.
They are missing the point.
Setting aside the broken promises and heated rhetoric that have come to characterize the dysfunction of Israeli politics, the unity deal will create a unique moment of centrist, political stability in the government, allowing it to address some of the more fundamental problems the state faces without a veto threat from the far right.
While the 94-strong super-coalition is unlikely to remain fully intact until October, 2013, when regularly scheduled elections are planned, there is a good chance it will survive. The reason is that centrist parties – Likud, Kadima, and Ehud Barak’s Independence, which broke away from Labor last year – comprise 60 seats of the coalition in and of themselves. They need only one other party, or one other member of Knesset to pass their laws. With those numbers, they have a giant buffer to move ahead with tough proposals supported by most Israelis, even if right-wing parties like Yisrael Beytenu or religious parties like Shas object, and drop out.
This scale of this political power is clear in the ambitious priorities Netanyahu and Mofaz laid out in their agenda. In the next 17 months, they said at the press conference announcing their agreement, they hope to address four, difficult, controversial issues.
The first goal is replacing is the Tal Law, the controversial legal provision that has allowed the ultra-Orthodox to refrain from serving in the military. The Supreme Court forced the issue with a decision to invalidate the law and require the government to replace it by August 1, which is what threatened to break apart the coalition and bring about early elections in the first place. Now, Mofaz has been tasked with heading a committee on finding an alternative, and the religious parties that refused to budge on the point have a far weaker hand to play.
The second, and perhaps least exciting issue, is passing a new budget reflecting the state’s priorities. Here, politicians can best address (or try to quell) the expected return of protests on social inequality this summer.
The third goal is changing the electoral structure altogether. Structural quirks in Israel’s electoral system cause it to suffer from immense instability, which has prevented every government in over two decades from completing a full, four-year term. By international standards, Israel has a low threshold of votes required for parties to gain representation in the Knesse. As a result, the Knesset has a lot of little parties that must be placated if they, too, are to join a coalition. Raising the threshold would mean the fewer small parties, and as a result, fewer parties that can hold a fragile coalition hostage with their demands. In other words, even if all the other goals fail, equipping Israel to deal with political challenges in the future is a priority.
And finally, advances in the peace process. To hear Binyamin Netanyahu include peace negotiations as one of his top four priorities is a welcome change, and the Palestinians should take note. Fresh off their own cabinet reshuffle, the PA could take advantage of a rare opportunity to agree on and pass a deal without the usual domestic pressure on the Israeli side. Netanyahu could also, without the baggage of the religious parties, accede to the Palestinian pre-condition that he freeze settlement activity, but he would have to quell dissent within his own party to do so.
Of course, overlooking the biggest international challenge Israel faces would be foolish. When early elections were anticipated, the possibility of a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities was vastly diminished. Keeping the threat alive will both bolster chances that upcoming nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West will bear fruit, and allow Israel to act if it feels the need to. The fact that Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Independence party would have likely been demolished in elections may shed light on Netanyahu’s thinking in accepting the unity deal.
Through the political sandstorm, it is possible that Netanyahu has shown his true colors to be pragmatic, centrist ones. Unlike Mofaz, Netanyahu had nothing to worry about in early elections. He recentyly defeated the sole challenger within his own party handily, and was expected to have the biggest party in the next Knesset by a margin of over 40%. The only reason to offer the foundering left (and Kadima, in particular) a lifeline would be because he believes in fixing Israel’s seemingly intractable problems, and found a rare opportunity to do so.
Having freed himself from the shackles of rigidly right-wing and religious parties, Netanyahu may yet prove more flexible than expected.
(A version of this post appears in the Christian Science Monitor)Follow @NivPlus