My Word: Magic or trick?

What Israelis think of the latest deal depends largely on their whereabouts on the political map.

Binyamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Binyamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It was the drama in the voices that first alerted me to the fact that I had gone to sleep in one political reality and woken up to another. Something in the presentation of the radio news show immediately conveyed that May 8 was not starting as just another day in this country, which rarely lacks either news or drama.
A few seconds’ talk of the “new unity government” had me checking the date to make sure it was not a broadcast of archive material of some kind. A few seconds more had me checking I was really awake. I was. Not only awake, in fact, but like any other journalist who had published anything about the expected expedited national elections, I was hastily going over in my mind what I had written a few days before.
I mentally kicked myself for having deleted my original final paragraph in which I had noted: “But in Israeli politics, anything can happen, and often does.” Too trite; too obvious, my inner editor had told me at the time.
I gave myself a gold star, however, for noting that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is “known as The Magician for his ability to pull off political tricks that challenge the [election] genie.”
Magic tricks, as we all know, rely on timing, creating the right atmosphere and behind-the-scenes preparation. Political tricks, it seems, require the same basic elements.
Whether you agreed with the move or not, it was impressive to see the manner in which Netanyahu so smoothly and swiftly brought Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz and his whole faction of 28 MKs into the government, while Israelis were sleeping.
Throughout the day, several English-speakers asked me how to translate or describe “hatargil hamasriah.” The phrase “the stinking maneuver” had made a comeback. As Netanyahu metaphorically pulled Mofaz out of his hat, journalists, commentators and the prime minister’s political opponents tried to find a word to describe what he had done.
Netanyahu’s move last week was different from the “stinking maneuver” of 1990, but I could see why it came to mind.
If nothing else, the general public lost even more respect for politicians and increased demands for electoral reform.
The 1990 maneuver took place when then-Labor Party leader Shimon Peres tried to double-cross both his senior national coalition partner – prime minister Yitzhak Shamir – and his main rival within Labor – Yitzhak Rabin – by conspiring behind their backs to topple the unity government in which they were all members.
His idea was to use Shas, the religious party then under the leadership of Aryeh Deri, to form a new government without the Likud. The attempt faltered when Peres was left with one MK short of the majority he needed. Ultimately, Shamir continued to serve as prime minister until new elections were called in 1992, but not for want of trying on Peres’s part.
It is human nature, perhaps – or perhaps the nature of politics – that many of the same people who a week before vociferously condemned the idea of early elections as “pointless” and “a waste of money,” last week were condemning Netanyahu’s move to avoid them as undemocratic.
But Netanyahu did not suddenly extend his term, he merely brought his government a measure of stability to enable it to survive until the original election date: October 2013.
This is no great change, it is a great achievement. It does indeed save dragging the country into a period of electioneering in which the Knesset does not function, budgets are not allocated, and parliamentarians are more concerned with their own futures than planning ahead for the greater good. When ministers and politicians are especially eager to be photographed cutting a red ribbon, they are tempted to take shortcuts. They also tend to ignore the important but unsexy issues – which include anything to do with the old, infirm or mentally disabled – in favor of subjects that look good in the photogenic sense.
Shortly before the last elections, in 2009, when Netanyahu visited The Jerusalem Post editorial staff, I asked him how he intended to prevent a repeat of the demise of his first term in office, when his government was toppled from within over implementation of the Oslo Accords which he had inherited. He responded, and has emphasized repeatedly since then, that he was aiming for as large a coalition as possible.
Last week’s maneuver doesn’t just show the extent to which Netanyahu learned the lessons of the past, it shows the extent to which newly ousted Kadima leader Tzipi Livni misplayed her cards when she had a chance to join the coalition from the start.
Livni seems to me to be the biggest loser of this move. (Yair Lapid admittedly prematurely jumped into the political arena, but he now has more than a year to prepare himself for the real thing: He will be judged by how he handles this period – as an opportunity or an insurmountable hurdle.)
The stinking maneuver was not the only phrase that created a stink last week. The word “combina” – that peculiar Israeli form of wheeling and dealing – also bounced back. And “politika’i” – politician – enounced as an epithet, not a compliment, also hangs in the air and on Facebook pages.
But there is nothing innately wrong with the idea of political maneuvering: What Israelis think of the latest deal depends largely on whereabouts on the political map they are standing as they examine it.
Netanyahu managed overnight to create his dream coalition, with a solid majority of nearly 100 out of the 120-member Knesset, side-streaming the smaller religious parties and the right wing, including his nemesis within the Likud, Moshe Feiglin, and his former friend turned rival Avigdor Liberman as head of Yisrael Beytenu. Liberman, of course, is not known for his subtlety, and it was his notso- veiled threat to stop toeing the coalition line that provided the main impetus for Netanyahu to reach out to Mofaz in the first place.
He also managed to conjure up a platform – compulsory conscription that includes the ultra-Orthodox and electoral reform – that has broad appeal. Even the attempt to revive the diplomatic process with the Palestinians – if handled properly – could go down well, although I suspect that by now most Israelis and Palestinians would prefer a modus vivendi that we can all live with rather than another “peace process” that blows up in our faces.
Inevitably the maneuver will star in future election campaigns; the words “liar” and “zigzag” were also bandied around last week. It will also be used as a means to resurrect the social protests this summer – just as soon as the students start their vacation period – although hitching it to the social justice movement does an injustice to the rest of the country’s citizens. Arguably, the broad coalition offers Netanyahu the chance to sensibly implement necessary social and economic reforms (hint: privatization is not the only answer).
Netanyahu has bought Mofaz, bought time, and has secured himself another claim to fame in local political history. The hat that a lot of people were forced to eat last week belongs on a magician’s head.
But as I should have pointed out before: “In Israeli politics, anything can happen, and often does.”
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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