Kadima Knesset member Nachman Shai, the army spokesman at the time of the Gulf War in 1991, on Thursday defended his party’s entrance into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition by noting that Israel might find itself embroiled in a regional war in a few months, and then Kadima would have automatically joined a national unity government anyway.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Shai listed several factors in support of the new Likud-Kadima alliance — which was cemented on Tuesday and which halted a move toward early elections — including the rare opportunity to push through electoral reform and legislate for mandatory national service for ultra-Orthodox Israelis.
Then he added: “All kinds of unpredictable factors are unfolding in the region. Economically, we don’t know where we’re going. Regionally, we may find ourselves in a war in a few months. If that were the case, we would have joined the coalition immediately anyway, just as (the late prime minister Menachem) Begin did in 1967 (at the time of the Six-Day War). I’m not saying we’re going to have a war. It’s a possibility,” said Shai.
Shai, who entered politics at the last elections having held a series of senior positions in journalism and broadcasting, and worked as the director-general of the United Jewish Communities in Israel, acknowledged that, in retrospect, Kadima would have been better off joining Netanyahu in government three years ago — a move he opposed at the time. “Compared to joining the coalition in 2009 and getting 10 ministerial seats and representation on most Knesset committees and forums, joining today and having just one minister and maybe two or three later, yes, this is much worse,” he said.
But the former Kadima party leader, Tzipi Livni, and others including himself, “didn’t like it,” Shai said. “The voters and the Kadima street wanted it. Opposition for them was a disaster. The party was established by people who had been in government and wanted to stay in government, and for them opposition was a disaster. They punished Livni for this” — by ousting her in a leadership vote at the end of March in favor of new leader Shaul Mofaz. “They would have been happy for her to be the number two in Netanyahu’s government.”
Shai predicted a difficult but not impossible battle for Kadima — which won 28 seats in the 2009 elections, but was heading for a dozen or fewer had Israel gone to the polls in the near future — to regain widespread public support. “The alternative for us to joining this coalition could have been to lose the entire party. We were dropping from 12 to 9 seats (in the polls). I hope Kadima will recover. Will it ever get back to 28 seats? Not in the near future, but who knows? I hope so.”
Overall, he said, Israel was moving to the political right, and Netanyahu’s Likud was the prime beneficiary. “Demography continues to make Israel different. More voters are moving to the right, to more religious mindsets,” he said. “Netanyahu saw this on Sunday night” — when rightist members of the governing Likud gave the prime minister a rough ride at a party convention meeting. “Livni should have understood that Kadima cannot take votes from the Likud, but the Likud can take votes from us.”
Asked whether the surprise unity deal signed by Netanyahu and Mofaz represented revenge for Netanyahu — drawing Kadima back toward the Likud seven years after prime minister Ariel Sharon had bolted the Likud to form Kadima — Shai said “I don’t think that’s what Netanyahu was seeking… but there is something in what you say. Former Likud MKs (who had left to form Kadima) suddenly came back together with serving Likud MKs in the last couple of days. There was something in the air. The majority of our MKs did come from the Likud, but Kadima is more than the old Likud. Others came from Labor. Others, like myself, came from the center.”
He said Netanyahu wanted the partnership because he feared the growing strength of the hardline right-wingers in his party, among other factors. And Mofaz wanted the deal because “Kadima wasn’t ready for new elections. The recent leadership contest (between Mofaz and Livni) was a terrible experience. The party was divided into two camps. The polls were bleak. Most MKs knew they would lose their seats if there were elections. So, there was a common interest.”
Asked whether he really believed Netanyahu would push through laws on electoral reform and mandatory service, Shai said flatly: “If not, we’re not going to stay in the coalition. These are not just beautiful ideas. They are conditions. The Supreme Court gave a July 31 deadline for replacement of the Tal Law (on national service for the ultra-Orthodox), and the two parties agreed on an end of the year deadline for electoral reform. There needs to be progress by those deadlines… If not, we would not stay in the coalition.”
Shai dismissed a Wednesday night TV report that suggested he might be leaving the party and the Knesset to run for mayor of Jerusalem. On the mayoralty, he said, “No decision has been made. The idea was raised by Kadima activists and a few others a few months ago. I said, let’s check out the idea. I’m still very much in Kadima. There’s plenty of time to check. I’m not leaving Kadima and I’m not looking at the municipality yet.”
He said he fully supported the new unity alliance: “I voted for the coalition, and I would vote for it again.” True, Shai said, a coalition this wide — including 94 of the 120 members of Knesset — does not send a strong message for Israeli democracy. But it is a good message for lots of Israelis who want to feel that they are represented in government.”