Where security and coalition politics intersect

The prime minister did not manufacture an emergency in the north for political purposes, but the very real Syrian crisis should make it a bit easier for him to form a government.

Iron Dome command center 370 (photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
Iron Dome command center 370
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
Henry Kissinger’s well-worn phrase, “Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy,” was coined almost 40 years ago when the then-US secretary of state was engaged in putting together the Syrian-Israel Separation of Forces Agreement on the Golan Heights.
That agreement was being brokered just as the Agranat Committee investigating the Yom Kippur War published its bombshell interim findings – which led to Golda Meir’s resignation – and amid the busy political horse-trading taking place at the time to form a new government under Yitzhak Rabin. With his pithy little phrase, Kissinger articulated that Israel’s internal party considerations were shaping the country’s critical foreign policy decisions. (As if that is not the case everywhere else in the world.) Four decades later, it is again a Syria-related issue – indeed, a critical Syria-related issue – on the agenda during coalition negotiations. But this time it is less domestic policy driving foreign policy than national security issues sure to impact on coalition ones.
Less than 24 hours after Israel reportedly hit a Syrian arms convoy headed to Hezbollah in Lebanon with “game changing” anti-aircraft batteries, or bombed a defense installation near Damascus that may have been an assembly plant for chemical weapons, or both, President Shimon Peres began formally consulting the parties to get their recommendations about who should be prime minister and was given the task of forming the next coalition.
How ironic that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu failed during the recently-completed campaign to make national security concerns the main election issue, but that a week later those very issues were casting a heavy shadow over the coalition negotiations.
Yesh Atid may have catapulted to 19 seats in the elections with its emphasis on domestic issues and call for an equitable distribution of the country’s military and tax burden, but those issues suddenly looked less significant alongside photographs of haredim and secular Israelis lining up together to get their gas masks in the wake of concern about Syria’s chemical stockpile.
Only the most cynical and jaded would say that Wednesday’s reported dawn attack was timed for political purposes and that it was aimed at easing the coalition negotiations.
Granted, it might be simpler to rope in recalcitrant parties – or parties asking for too much – during a time of crisis and emergency. But still, there is an objective crisis up north.
At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu – after noting the “deadly weapons in Syria” and adding that the country was “increasingly falling apart” – seemed to foreshadow what was to come three days later by saying, “The Middle East is not waiting on the results of the elections and it will not stop during the formation of the government.
“There are many threats here, and the reality is developing apace,” he said. “In the east, north and south, everything is in ferment and we must be prepared.
To this end, I would like to form the broadest and most stable government as possible in order – first of all – to meet the significant security threats facing Israel.”
It is not as though the prime minister is manufacturing the crisis in Syria. It is not as though the possible transfer of SA-17 anti-aircraft batteries, or Scud D missiles, or Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles from Syria to Hezbollah is not a strategic tipping point that Israel can not tolerate. It’s not as though the stockpile of an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons in Syrian storehouses does not pose a significant threat to the country and the world.
Imagine, suggests Ra’anan Gissin, a former spokesman to Ariel Sharon, were the al-Qaida elements in Syria able to get their hands on Syrian mustard gas and transfer it to the al-Qaida elements in Mali, facing off against French troops. The chemical weapons are indeed a global concern.
Gissin made another interesting observation: Syria is turning into Lebanon and Lebanon is morphing into Syria – a development that will pose significant challenges for Israel.
What does that mean? It means that the chaos, unpredictability, civil war and sectarian strife that has been the staple of Lebanon for the last 40 years has now moved over to Syria, with huge implications for Israel, which is on the verge of losing its “most reliable and predictable” enemy.
And, in turn, Lebanon is becoming – or more accurately Iran is intent on it becoming – Syria: a client state with state-of-theart Russian weaponry to act as Tehran’s regional counterbalance to Israel. If Syria falls and Iran loses its closest ally, it needs to invent a new one, and is trying to do so with Lebanon. Hence the efforts to move over the strategic weapons from a tottering Syria to – ironically – a more stable Lebanon.
In other words, the threats – and the need to act against them – are real. Is Netanyahu making them up? No. Is he over-exaggerating them? It doesn’t seem that way, not considering what has happened in Syria over the last two weeks.
Does the growing sense of national crisis help him in his talks with potential coalition partners? Yes.
One does not have to work too hard to imagine that at some point during coalition talks with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett or Shas’s Eli Yishai, Arye Deri and Ariel Attias – at a time when they will stubbornly demand one thing or another that Netanyahu will be loath to concede – that the prime minister will take the heads of each party to the side, show them classified security documents and whisper in their ears that with these types of threats hanging over the country, a government needs to be formed quickly and the “small stuff” can be dealt with later.
Obviously, there is nothing like a circlethe- wagons crisis to get recalcitrant parties to be willing to show more flexibility and sit together around the cabinet table. And this is true not only with Netanyahu’s “natural” coalition partners.
Take, for instance, Tzipi Livni and her party. Livni, who unabashedly bashed Netanyahu both in Israel and abroad during the campaign and prior to it, and who might raise eyebrows were she now to express interest in joining the government of a man she vehemently argued was leading the country to ruin, could use the current crisis to do just that.
It is an emergency, she could argue – as could Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich, although this is more unlikely – and it is time to unite forces. Many are the trees that can be climbed down for the sake of national unity in a time of crisis.
Coalition politics and a national security crisis intersected this week, and what the country is likely to witness in the coming days is how the crisis will impact profoundly on the coalition politics.