Analyze This: Unusual get-together

Is there any way Likud could join a unity government?

likud logo 88 (photo credit: )
likud logo 88
(photo credit: )
Both Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu's offices are denying that politics were discussed in their meeting Thursday, insisting that only high-level security issues were on the table. Nonetheless, this unusual get-together - such briefings for the head of the opposition are usually given by the prime minister - has raised speculation that nonmilitary matters were indeed discussed, at least when the two principals took time to confer alone. This is especially the case as it comes just two days after Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni publicly called for a unity government including the Likud, telling a gathering of Kadima activists she would make this a priority if she succeeded Ehud Olmert as premier. Could such a unity government be in the offing for later this year? What could drive the Likud into a coalition with Kadima and Labor when they are currently so very much at odds? What, if any, would be the personal political benefits for Livni, Barak and Netanyahu - and the risks? How could Bibi make such a move when his entire political strategy has been based on forcing the Kadima-led coalition into an early election? Well, for one, this approach has so far noticeably failed, even with a government led by a prime minister with the lowest approval ratings in Israel's history. Would a government led by Livni (or Shaul Mofaz) be more vulnerable to such a collapse? It's hard to see why, since the dynamic that is keeping the coalition afloat - the simple fact that many of its members are unlikely to retain their Knesset seats after the next election - will remain unchanged. Having a scandal-challenged Ehud Olmert out of the picture would make it even easier for his successor to keep this government going until its 2010 expiration date. Still, if Livni does emerge the winner of September's scheduled Kadima primary, she is sure to face the possibility of defections by Olmert and Mofaz loyalists (including the latter himself) in her own faction, increasing the risk of her government coming to a premature finish. Bringing the Likud into the fold - or at least keeping that option alive as a serious possibility - is one way to damp down the possibility of an internal, post-primary Kadima revolt. Beyond that, fitting Netanyahu either into a vacated foreign minister slot, or perhaps returning him to the Finance Ministry in place of Olmert loyalist Ronnie Bar-On, would also be a means for Livni to avoid promoting Mofaz ahead of another possible primary challenge from him before the next national election. Still, even the chance to avoid yet another two years in opposition is hardly sufficient reason for Netanyahu to join forces with Kadima and Labor. Even though his main challenger in the last Likud primary was far-right activist Moshe Feiglin, his continuing dominance of the party over his real rival, Silvan Shalom, is based on support from the party's hard-line base. Although Bibi's opposition to 2005's Gaza disengagement may have been a case of too little, too late, the Right still views him as the only viable candidate they can even partially trust (in contrast to Shalom) who has a chance at capturing the centrist mainstream. And unlike Ariel Sharon, who damped down the second intifada and pulled Israel out of Gaza, Netanyahu is in no position right now where he can afford to lose this core support. So he'd need a damn good justification to provide the political cover for bringing the Likud into a unity government - just as Barak would have to overcome objections from the most left-wing members of Labor. Livni spoke to the press this week about such a government perhaps being able to advance the peace process, or to move ahead on such issues as education and governmental reform that require support from all three big parties. As they say in Brooklyn: Fugeddaboutit. Bringing the Likud into the coalition would certainly mean a freezing of the peace process with the Palestinians, and while electoral and education reform could be the fruits of a unity government, they will never be the spur for its formation. There's just one issue that could bring the Likud into a unity government any time in the near future, that is sufficiently pressing to provide all the party leaders with plausible justification to convince their constituencies of the need to do so, and it's the only one on which there is already consensus among them: Iran. If Israel is seriously contemplating any military action against the Iranian nuclear program in the coming year, there is certainly logic in creating an across-the-board coalition both in the run-up to such action, and even more so to deal with its aftermath. Indeed, such unity governments have only arisen when needed to contend with a security situation that qualified as a national emergency, or something close to it - the Six Day War, the resolution of the Lebanon War, the second intifada. Contending with the Iranian nuclear threat rises to that danger level, and is the only issue that could possibly bring about a Livni-Barak-Netanyahu government in the coming year. Of course, if the Likud did join in with Kadima and Labor, it would immediately be interpreted by the outside world as preparation for possible military action against Iran. That might not be so good for oil prices. But it might also be the most convincing way for Israel, short of an attack itself, to convey to the international community that the time to find a peaceful way for Teheran to back down on its nuclear ambitions is running out fast. [email protected]