Once again speculations have begun regarding the establishment of a national unity government, this time against the background of the agreement signed last week between the P5+1 powers and Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program.
As usual in such cases, we do not know what exactly is going on. Have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog been talking seriously about the option of unity in recent meetings? Does Netanyahu actually wants the Zionist Union, which during the recent election campaign he called “the Anti-Zionist Union,” in his government, or is using the situation as a ploy to convince Yisrael Beytenu to join the coalition? Under what conditions would Herzog will be willing to join the government? The information we are getting is partial, biased and undependable.
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In the past I have expressed my reservations about a national unity government in a situation where the Right has an absolute majority (67 Knesset seats), which at least in theory provides it with the option to govern without the direct intervention of the Left, and believe that it should be allowed to show what it is cable of doing, for better or worse.
Has anything changed, now that Israel must confront the ramifications of the agreement with Iran, which is highly problematic from Israel’ s point of view, no matter what way one looks at it? From the perspective of the more radical Left, to which around a third of the Zionist Union MKs belong, the answer to this question is an unequivocal “no.” The more moderate, pragmatic Left is inclined to say “under certain conditions – yes.”
What are these conditions? First of all, on the formal level: if we are speaking of national unity, the current government, with its coalition agreements and policy guidelines, must give way to a new government, with new coalition agreements and policy guidelines.
If a large parliamentary group enters an existing coalition in return for crumbs – as did Kadima under Shaul Mofaz in May 2012 – this is not national unity, but rather unconditional surrender. We may recall that Mofaz remained in Netanyahu’s second government (formed in 2009) for just over two months, and that subsequently Kadima fell from 28 MKs in the 18th Knesset (one more than the Likud had!) to two in the 19th.
If Netanyahu really wants the Zionist Union in his government, after reaching an agreement in principle with it as to what sort of government should be formed he must resign, and together with Herzog and the leader of at least one more member of the current coalition (preferably Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon) inform the president that he plans to form a new government.
Whether such a government will include all the members of the current coalition (the Jewish Home Party is a potential candidate for removal) is secondary to the coalition agreements and basic guidelines to be decided upon.
The fact that the Likud, Zionist Union and Kulanu (Kahlon’s party) together hold 64 Knesset seats should facilitate the process – on condition, of course, that Netanyahu really favors national unity over unconditional surrender by the Zionist Union.
Personally, I doubt this is what Netanyahu really wants, since the impression one gets is that he is not ready to make the policy compromises (and I mean compromises, not surrender) that full cooperation with the Zionist Union would involve.
From the vantage point of the moderate, pragmatic Left the following issues are among those that must be negotiated: Israel’s reaction to the agreement with Iran; Israel’s policy regarding the Gaza Strip; Israel’s policy vis-àvis the West Bank; an improved policy outline in the field of natural gas; a better balance between the government’s national economic priorities and promises made to individual members of the coalition.
The fact that the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties have categorically refused to spread out over several years fulfillment of the promises made to them in the coalition agreements of the current government, and this in order to enable a reasonable budget for 2015-16 to be presented to the Knesset for its approval, highlights the importance of this last point.
Even though the Iranian issue is the main (if not the only) reason for the current talks between Netanyahu and Herzog, and both sides agree that the agreement with Iran is extremely problematic, it is not at all clear whether they can agree on what exactly Israel should do at this juncture.
From the media reports one gets the impression that Netanyahu has no second thoughts with regard to his decision to wage an all-out battle against US President Barack Obama and his administration on the issue, rather than make every feasible effort to work as closely as possible with them in order to minimize the damage and future dangers to Israel.
Especially now, after Obama decided to get the UN Security Council to endorse the agreement with Iran before it reaches the US Congress, the issue is whether Israel should continue to actively support the rejection of the agreement by Congress by a majority that will prevent the president from using his veto power, and adamantly refuse to talk to the administration about a compensation package to Israel to deal with the increased danger to its security.
Even if the Republican move to thwart Obama’s policy succeeds, with Security Council endorsement of the agreement there is nothing to stop all the other partners to the agreement – including the UK, France, Russia and China – from acting in accordance with it. Where will that leave Israel, even if the Republicans win in the 2016 US presidential elections? It is generally agreed that Israel no longer has the option of attacking Iranian nuclear installations with impunity (even though, according to opinion polls, a third of the Israeli population supports such an attack), and Netanyahu’s claim that “we are not against an agreement, but we favor a better agreement” is nothing but a mincing of words coming from the mouth of a politician who does not excel in reaching good agreements – not for Israel, not for the Likud, and not even for himself. It is clear that the choice today is between this agreement with American support, and this agreement without American support.
At this stage all the signatories to the agreement with Iran, including the Obama administration, believe that a far-from-perfect nuclear agreement, which does not touch upon Iran’s foreign policy in general, is preferable to no agreement. Israel is, of course, within its rights to contest this approach, but has maneuvered itself into a position in which no one listens to it, except for US Republicans.
Whatever the merits or faults of the policies Netanyahu led in the past, clearly he must change course if he wants the Zionist Union – most of which perceives the situation as described above – in his government.
But this is only one issue that must be negotiated between the Likud and the Zionist Union if thoughts about forming a national unity government are to move into a more practical phase. Some of the other issues are just as knotty, while others are much simpler.
The bottom line: where there is a will, there is a way. The question is whether there is a will.