Tuesday, May 08, 2012

What's The Impact of the Grand Coalition

The shocking news out of Israel is that Kadima has agreed to join with Likud in a unity coalition formed of 90+ MKs. New Kadima head Shaul Mofaz will join the government as Deputy Prime Minister. Bibi had been in the process of calling early elections that would have almost certainly seen Likud gain seats and Kadima lose (a great many of) them. So it was unexpected that Bibi would agree to this, and everyone is trying to figure out what's going on -- who wins and who loses.

The obvious winner is Kadima -- which just staved off a crushing, potentially back-breaking election defeat. Equally obvious losers are Labor -- which was looking like it was poised to bounce back in the new elections, and Yair Lapid, who had formed a new party that looked like it was gaining traction on a populist platform. But with Likud gaining new breathing room, folks are inevitably wondering if any of Bibi's current coalition partners are on the outs, and eyes are falling both on Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu. The former seems the more immediate target, as one of the first things the new coalition plans on doing is reforming the laws granting ultra-orthodox Jews exemptions from military service. But I'm hearing a lot of chatter that it is Avigdor Lieberman in the cross-hairs. Corruption issues aside, and his disastrous reign as Foreign Minister also aside, Lieberman and his party represent the biggest threat to Likud's dominance as the preeminent right-wing party. It wouldn't surprise me if Bibi was trying to hobble their stratospheric momentum.

Kadima's decision to join the government breaks persistent party policy dating from the last election -- a policy Mofaz swore to continue when he was campaigning for party chairmanship last month. I remember being very sympathetic to Kadima not joining the governing coalition back in 2009. It was a principled stand on the notion that Kadima just couldn't link arms with an essentially fascist party like Yisrael Beiteinu.

But the thing about principled stands is that they come with costs. And this one has been costly. The right/far-right coalition that emerged instead has been a disaster for Israel. And the fact that essentially all of Bibi's coalition partners were to his right meant that the Prime Minister was forced to be far less accommodating and far more belligerent than I think even he would have liked.

J.J. Goldberg makes the case that may well save the Israeli peace camp. Mofaz ousted Tzipi Livni, whom I admired, but on substance they aren't that far apart. That includes Mofaz having good social democratic instincts and, more importantly, a clear-eyed picture of the situation with the Palestinians. Putting Mofaz in government gives Netanyahu a countervailing voice, which at least makes it more likely he'll move the peace process forward. We can only hope, anyway.

The other major question around this whole thing is what it means for Israel's Iran policy. Here, I have little to say. Mofaz is Iranian-born and this an issue close to his heart. But I've seen wildly conflicting predictions about what direction this pushes Israel vis-a-vis Iran. Some think "grand unity coalition" equals run-up to war. Others think that Mofaz has demonstrated no interest in Israel adopting a more aggressive posture. I don't know what to think on this, so I'll just wait and see, like everyone else.

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