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Surprise: A New Coalition Government in Israel!

What a wonderful piece of political intrigue. What a great example of creative negotiation.  Sworn enemies are now allies in government. Netanyahu and Mofaz, Likud and Kadima.  Who would have thought? It’s as if Obama and Romney decided to team up rather than run against each other.   It appears that everyone in Israel was taken by surprise by this. Political commentators thought this was a zero sum distributive game, but it turns out that it really was in large part an integrative negotiation after all.

 

Here is how Jodi Roduren described what each of the principle parties had to gain in today’s (May 8TH) NY Times:

 

For Mr. Mofaz, whose Kadima Party was expected to lose up to half of its seats if elections were held soon, it is a critical lifeline, elevating his status and giving him more time to build up public support before the next election. There is, however, the risk he will have damaged his credibility because he had previously said he would not join forces with Mr. Netanyahu.

 

As for the prime minister, the veteran journalist David Horovitz called it a “masterstroke” while Amit Segal, Channel 2’s commentator, named it “the deal of the century,” saying Mr. Netanyahu got Mr. Mofaz for “half price” and 27 other lawmakers free.

 

Another clear winner is Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has grown increasingly close to Mr. Netanyahu, particularly on the issue of Iran. A member of the tiny Independence Party, Mr. Barak faced an unclear future at the polls, and the deal allows Mr. Netanyahu to keep him by his side without upsetting Likud members by offering him a seat on their list.

 

While both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Mofaz promised changes on the draft question and on electoral reform, they offered specifics on neither. They are also under pressure on the question of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, facing a court-ordered July 1 deadline to dismantle one called Ulpana that the right wing has vowed to protect.

 

“He’s in a stronger position to negotiate both with the settlers and with the Supreme Court, and with his Likud rebels,” said Daniel Levy, a British-Israeli political scientist.

 

This is a wonderful example of creative negotiation—but is it a good thing or would the long term cause of peace and justice have been better served by more internal political conflict in Israel? And how likely is this somewhat unlikely alliance to last?

 

This is your home, your country, Noam.  On this one, the ball is definitely in your court.

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This was, indeed, a huge surprise Bernie – a political coup that is usually impossible to pull off in Israel. Israel is smaller than New Jersey, and everybody has a cousin who works somewhere and knows what is going on – and everyone loves to talk. There are very few secrets hidden from the public.

An uncomfortable point about this whole thing is, in fact, that it was invisible until the very moment of its announcement. Israel was gearing up towards elections, with Mr. Mofaz and Mr. Netanyahu very active players in that gearing up. At the very last moment before the government disbanded to announce new elections, even as the parliament was voting on its own disbanding procedures, those two were smiling inwardly, knowing it was all a sham. This isn’t a perfect analogy for many reasons, but it is a good one on a gut level and perhaps on a moral level: Picture Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama shaking hands in the back room of a restaurant tonight, having agreed to run full-blown presidential campaigns until late October, at which time Mr. Romney would throw in the towel and accept the role of V.P. to President Obama – citing a need for unity, austerity and leadership. Politics aside, I think we can all acknowledge that some people might feel sold out.

 

The funny thing about Israeli politics is that there is no real Election Day here. While the parliament, and therefore the prime minister and government, are elected to a four-year term, in practice the parliament always disbands itself by vote before then (sometimes – long before them) for political considerations, and the country rolls the dice at the polls once again (this is not only weirdly unstable, it is also very expensive but heck, we can always raise taxes, right?). The average life-span of Israeli governments over the past few decades has been about 2 years and 7 months, if the number I heard was a real one and not someone making up a statistic and putting a 7 in at the end for credibility.

 

Sometimes governments here fall because they are weak – but that’s not what was going on here. The government was purposefully disbanding itself and heading for elections because Mr. Netanyahu has never felt stronger: He is in control of his party, he is popular on the street and – my guess – no US presidential candidate would even consider speaking his true mind of Mr. Netanyahu before November 6th.

 

Mofaz, on the other hand, has nothing going for him. He just performed what some considered a hostile takeover of the Kadima party – and now controls 28 representatives (a quarter of the parliament) of whom about half can’t stand him. As the analyst you quoted said, he will never wield this much power again; and the moment elections were to be announced, his potential future power would shrink in half.

 

So, turning a negotiation prism on these events, Netanyahu followed three precepts successfully: First, he chose the timing of the negotiation, by being the one to decide when elections would be held. Second, he chose to negotiate while the polls state that he enjoys a significant power advantage over Mofaz. Finally, in the game of chicken he and Mofaz played, in which one party would have to give in and make concessions before the country fell, so to speak over the precipice and into elections, Netanyahu didn’t blink; in fact, he ripped the steering wheel off, cut the brake cables, and waved them in Mofaz’s face.

 

While many will see Netanyahu as having pulled off something very significant, worthy of an Ariel Sharon in political terms, Mofaz has also traded up – by buying himself a year or so at the decision making table and in the public’s vision, before he needs to start earning his political support on his own. However, he has fundamentally divested himself of his ability (and perhaps motivation) to stir the pot, to suggest independent action or anything of the sort. In short – Netanyahu now controls nearly %80 of the legislature.

 

I think that at this point, the road is clear for discussion of the positive role of some internal Israeli conflict. I focused on the political negotiation dynamics, I think, as I needed to lay some background and also to steel myself before addressing the deeper question you raised – what the effect of this back-room deal is on the long term cause of peace and justice. I’m not sure that they were invited into that back room.

 

But – time for that another time; looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

The negotiation is over, the conflict begins.

 

First an apology for not responding sooner.  My lame explanation is that last weekend was my son’s graduation from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, followed immediately by a trip to train child protection mediators in Arizona and then by a return home which thrust me into…. Well enough of the excuses already---back to the discussion.

 

Something has been accomplished by this negotiation—but it’s not clear exactly what.  Both Netanyahu and Mofaz clearly felt that they had something to gain by putting aside their fundamentally competitive stance with each other and cooperating, but we can’t really be sure what that is—until we see what they do with their new positions.  Here are a few guesses from afar.

 

For Mofaz, he now has more leverage over member in his own party who are not so happy with him—presumably he can now offer them the access to more influence, more rewards, and more interesting and powerful positions within government.  If they choose to fight him on this, their choices are significantly limited—for the moment. In another words, by cooperating with Netanyahu, with whom he was competing, he can better compete with his own party with whom he is supposedly cooperating.  Such is the matrix of cooperation and competition in politics.  What he hopes to accomplish on a policy level by this move is less clear, and this may be the area in which he has some significant potential to improve his standing—and by the same token where he can really blow it.  If he can leverage his new position to accomplish some progress on important domestic issues and on the peace process (or lack thereof), he can really bolster his position.  If on the other hand, this move is perceived over time as providing Netanyahu with more cover to do what he was going to do anyway (stay with the current rules on army service, continue with settlement expansion, and in general maintain current domestic policies) then his position as leader may be short lived.

 

But what about Netanyahu?  Why is he doing this? The most obvious reason is that this means no single faction of his coalition can bring him down.  That can give him considerable more leverage to take on some important policy challenges.  Unless he succeeds in pissing off multiple factions at once, he can put those in his coalition who oppose particular initiatives that he decides to take in a bind.  Essentially, they will have the choice of threatening to leave the government to no great effect (at least short term) and at a cost of a significant loss of influence and power or accepting policies that do not like.    I suspect part of his motivation might also involve the sheer thrill of having shown himself to be a shrewd dealmaker.  Maybe.

 

There are lots of small changes (at least so it seems from the outside) that he could accomplish—electoral reform, armed service reform, etc.  But there seem to me to be two big areas of policy initiative that he is now in a better position to pursue—and which ends up being his priority will say a whole lot about his fundamental impact on Israel, his legacy, the peace process, and a lot more. One is to move on an aggressive approach to Iran, an issue that he seems to have Kadima support or at least acquiescence in, but that is less popular with the general public.  He now has the clear internal muscle to do this, despite all the warnings from former intelligence and security officials.  The other is to take action on limiting and perhaps removing some settlements.  This would have the support of many in Israel, could move the peace process forward in a significant way for the first time in years, and would sort of provide him with a “Nixon goes to China” moment.  He may be in the very best place to pull this off of anyone (especially since Sharon’s stroke).  But of course that would be fiercely opposed by settlers and some of his current coalition members.  It would also require a great deal kind of courage and decisiveness.

 

Based on one’s political views, the lessening of political competition with this new government to allow for some dramatic policy initiatives could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how Netanyahu decides to use his new muscle. If he makes no dramatic moves at all, I think he will be viewed over time as shrewd but ineffective.  This is his moment.  How will he use it?

 

I wonder what analogies this will have to the American political landscape after the November election.

 

Good for you and your son! My daughter has just hit the high school matriculation exams here, and we’re all biting out fingernails…

I hope I’m given reason to eat my hat, but still: I think that most of the power Netanyahu has gained here will be used for maintaining his political stability, as you wrote,  and less for the other two policy initiatives you mentioned: Iran and Peace. He doesn’t need such strong backing to take as hard a line on Iran as he wants – this is an area which most of the Israeli public would grant him a long leash, and politicians tend to fall into line when there is a general consensus on national security (the voices calling out against such a hard line have received far less attention in Israel than they have abroad).

 As for using the accumulated power for kicking off a peace initiative, well – he certainly could, but here’s a word of advice: Don’t hold your breath. To put this into US political vernacular: I knew Ariel Sharon. And Bibi – he’s no Ariel Sharon…

I’d like to point this in a slightly different direction: The way the shift in the political power balance affects social conflict and in particular social justice -oriented in Israel.

The ‘Occupy’ –type protests of last summer, which were backed by huge proportions of the public and which brought the Israeli middle and lower classes out onto the streets (not to mention, quite a few members of the upper class who came out because heck, a trend is a trend, right?) ended in October with the resounding call, echoing The Bad News Bears, of ‘Wait till next summer’. The notion that the social protests had taken a hiatus to see if things would change, and would retake to the streets if things did not improve, has been a looming shadow over all social and economic discussions in Israel over the past year.

Indeed, very little improved, and the stage is being set for the next wave of protests. However, the success of this movement depends, to no small extent, on the ability to convert the noise on the street into political action. If an opposition party is promoting a social justice bill, and a million people are out on the street shouting along the same lines, there’s a chance that a coalition party member will see where the wind is blowing, jump on the bandwagon, and gain political points in return for adding momentum to the calls for change.

However, if an individual coalition member, or even a small party, knows that their crossing the lines on a particular issue is not going to change anything except in the sense of endangering their status within the government, then they have nothing to gain by it.

About 3 months ago, Mr. Mofaz said in a speech that the social protests were going to return with a vengeance in the summer, and that he would lead them. (This was generally met with laughter, as the whole beauty of the movement is its lack of leadership, and particularly its keeping clear of any of the old-school politicians attempting to subvert it). After setting himself up as Mr. Social Justice, Mofaz’s alliance with Netanyahu, in my opinion, pulls the rug out from under the social reform movement’s feet. A coalition controlling ¾ of the legislature can do anything it wants, period. And, I doubt Mr. Mofaz will be leading the protests against the government from his newly-bought position of #2 in that same government….

This is certainly something to be concered about. The disenfranchised have become more disenfranchised, and the disempowered have become more disempowered. Add on to this the escalatory sensation of having been sold out. This is also bound to change the nature of the summer protests: Who participates, and what methods do they use? I think we’re in for a round of escalation on several fronts. And – just to bring it home for many people who might be reading this – if the protests in Israel and in other places such as a financially crumbling Europe take on a new tone, how will that affect the related movements in the US?

Luckily, in the Middle East, anything can happen to change the facts, or the focus, in an instant. Today’s political or social tempest can be wiped off the mattering-map in a day. For example, Turkey – Israel’s former best friend and partner in the region – has conducted such an abrupt about-face that it has now accused Israel of using employing birds to spy on its agriculture (sic!). Who knows – there might be a new government tomorrow, peace might break out or a new religion could be founded. Me, I’m hoping Bruce Springsteen confirms the rumors that he’s going to play Tel Aviv in the summer. Bruce - I know you’re reading this; we really need a break.

Birds spying on agriculture?  What an interesting idea.  I would have thought they would be more useful as agents of fertilization rather than espionage.  At any rate, I will respond to your rather discouraging take on this soon, but first a word from today's NY Times.  As soon as I finished reading your entry, I saw Thomas Friedman's take on the same issue in today's paper.  He sees it many ways similarly to what we have discussed--an opportunity to do something important, or to let a very important opportunity slip by.  He seems to me to be grasping a bit at straws, but then he has his sources.  See his column at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/23/opinion/friedman-power-with-purpo....  Later.

It really does look as if Mr. Friedman does my copywriting for me, or vice-versa…

That aside, what did I tell you? Less than a week gone by, and the MidEast has seen it all:

  • A bloodbath  in Syria, and Koffi Anan on the ground there;
  • The      mother of all computer viruses in Iran and elsewhere;
  • Turkey threatening Cyprus (an EU member state!) over oil-drilling rights;
  • Nuclear talks between Iran and world powers continue;
  • The first democratic presidential vote held in Egypt;
  • Iran      being accused of carrying out attacks on Israeli, Jewish and US targets around the world; and
  • Turkey      handing down indictments against four Israeli ex-military personnel for their involvement in the Marmara flotilla incident – calling for a combined sentence, for the four, of 18,000 (sic!) years in prison.

Oh, and at some point, Iran threatened to sue Google.

So, a new coalition government in Israel is going to change the map?

Still, something Mr. Friedman wrote really did get me thinking – about a totally different topic. I’ll open up a new thread on that in a bit.

Noam

This sure puts the the playoffs (NHL and NBA) in perspective.  Still the new government is working on changing the map it appears. Your defense minister, Ehud Barack, is proposing imposing a border on Palestine.  A first step in a new approach? 

I look forward to the new thread.

Bernie

Well, an old approach if you count Ariel Sharon's unilateral pullout of Gaza in 2005 (and, to a lesser extent, Ehud Barak's own unilateral withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000). Policy papers are obviously going back and forth, but I think it's telling that none of this is being given much attention in the news in Israel...

Not to beat a dead horse, and not to say I-told-you-so, but I couldn't not raise this. Yesterday, the Israeli government coalition that sparked this conversation fell apart, 70 days after its forming.

Peace, meanwhile, was not made (or attempted), nor did anything change with regards to anything. Taking the long view on Middle Eastern politics - at least no wars were started in the past 70 days... Score it as a win?

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