The prospect of early elections had given rise to much speculation: would Aryeh Deri, the ex-con and former Shas strongman, create his own party and run against his former colleagues? Which party would the leaders of the social justice movement join? Would Ehud Barak’s Independence party pass the minimum threshold?
These and other questions are no longer relevant, at least for now. The surprise deal to create a national unity government has already produced an entirely different set of political permutations, and its own clear winners and losers. Here is a short overview of who gains from the shock deal, who loses, and whose fate isn’t clear yet.
Benjamin Netanyahu: At the head of one of the largest coalitions in Israeli history, the prime minister has decidedly more wiggle room to push through difficult decisions. This could be an important factor when it comes to the question of an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran, for instance. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, for example, thinks the unity government allows Netanyahu to “proceed apace with whatever he’s thinking about doing re: Iran’s nuclear sites.” He and other pundits had previously believed that Netanyahu wouldn’t attack during an election campaign.
Locally, the biggest issues that were causing Netanyahu headaches were two Supreme Court rulings: one that orders the state to dismantle illegal West Bank outposts and one that declared the Tal Law unconstitutional. The law allowed yeshiva students to defer enlistment and several parties, though not the Likud, have drafted proposals to replace it with a law that would have all citizens do national or military service. Now that Netanyahu has, at least nominally, the support of more than three fourth of MKs, he can more easily make moves without fearing that the Orthodox and pro-settler elements in government will bolt the coalition and oust his government. If Shas is not happy about the bill to replace the Tal Law and leaves, the government still has enough votes to pass it.
Sunday’s Likud Central Committee meeting showed that the right-wing elements in Likud are gaining strength. Indeed, the settler-friendly Danny Danon was the sole Likud MK who spoke out against the national unity government, charging that it would contradict the party’s right-wing principles. As journalist Amir Mizroch put it: “On Sunday night at [the] Likud convention the settlers won the battle. On Monday night, Netanyahu won the war.”
Ehud Barak: According to nearly all surveys, his Independence party would not have passed the threshold to enter the next Knesset. The right-wing elements in Likud went to great lengths trying to prevent Netanyahu from smuggling Barak into the next government on the Likud list. For now, Barak is safe and has almost a year and a half to try to put his party on the political map, or abandon this project — which seemed doomed from its very inception — and try to rejoin one of the established parties.
Tzipi Livni: Today she can feel vindicated. As Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote: “Mofaz today proved that Livni really practiced politics of a different sort.” A different kind of politics — one that tolerates long years in the opposition if the terms for joining the government are not in sync with one’s political convictions — was, and remains, her slogan. “Remember that there is a different kind of politics — it will prevail,” Livni wrote on her Facebook profile on Tuesday morning.
What that exactly means is unclear, but when she quit the Knesset last week she made plain that she was not bidding farewell to public life just yet. Some speculated that she might create a new party with a few breakaway Kadima MKs who didn’t like Mofaz. Or she can work together with Yair Lapid, the former journalist-cum-political pop star who created a new party. Whatever option she chooses, come election day 2013, she can enter the campaign well-rested and proudly say that she always stood and still stands for a different kind of politics.
Yuval Zellner: When the 34-year-old was sworn in Monday as the newest MK — he replaced Tzipi Livni — and addressed his colleagues, many observers were thinking that this was his first and last speech at the Knesset. Pundits were laughing about the fact that he was sworn into a Knesset that was supposed to dissolve itself just hours later. Everybody, including himself, thought that he would remain an MK for just four months.
Granted, it would have been four months in which he would receive an MK’s salary and that would guarantee him a parliamentarian’s pension plus a lifelong supply of perks, such as free newspapers and so on. But he wouldn’t have had one accomplishment to show, not one speech, not even a voting record for anything important. Now that he is a lawmaker for a coalition party, however, he has almost a year and a half to make an impact on the country’s parliament.
Avigdor Liberman: The only senior politician who didn’t attend Monday’s dramatic Knesset session, because he is currently in Germany, Liberman can be satisfied with the deal. He stands to gain, and without having to give anything in return. His party only has 15 mandates — compared to Kadima’s 28 — and yet he controls important portfolios including the Foreign Ministry, the Internal Security Ministry, the Tourism Ministry and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry — while the largest party in the Knesset, Kadima, has none. In addition, the chance that a replacement of the Tal Law will be passed — which is one of his Yisrael Beytenu party’s core demands, over which it was willing to dismantle the coalition — has grown tremendously with Mofaz entering the government.
Israeli online media: Only two major newspapers printed special editions with the news of the unity deal on Monday morning. Countless Israelis read in their morning papers that the Knesset had been dissolved, only to then hear on the radio on the way to work that what was supposed to happen never actually happened. True, many online journalists (including this reporter) had election analysis pieces ready to be uploaded. They were promptly chucked into the virtual trash bin.
At least the readers of news websites are up to date, while those who prefer to consume their news on real paper are still reading about the looming election and what it means for Israel. Israelis are news junkies, and after tonight it became clearer than ever that the traditional 24-hour news cycle is anachronistic.
The Israeli public: Not only will the taxpayer be spared the hundreds of millions that an early election would have cost, Israelis can now look forward to a quiet summer vacation, without endless political debates. Unless, of course, something happens in Iran. And then there are the demolitions of the illegal West Bank settlements, scheduled for July 1 (in Beit El) and August 1 (in Migron). Well, forget the quiet vacation; it’s going to be a hot summer. At least we will be spared from too much in-your-face election broadcasting. That’s better than nothing.
Yair Lapid: He was supposed to be the “next big thing,” and now he is downgraded to be the “next big thing in waiting.” The polls predicted up to 12 Knesset seats for the newcomer but now he has to wait and hope that the sails will not have lost their wind by then. “There is a Future” is the name of his new party, but the future will have to wait until the fall of 2013.
“This disgusting political alliance will bury all of its members beneath itself,” a fuming Lapid said of the Mofaz-Netanyahu deal. But his real concern, by next year, is that the alliance will bury him, especially if a replacement for the Tal Law has been passed by then. The equal sharing of the burden was one his key issues, and now he may have to find another issue in which he can purport to offer a true alternative to the established parties — if, that is, the Netanyahu-Mofaz alliance does actually get the new legislation on equal service through parliament.
Yeshiva students: Basically all Zionist parties in the Knesset agree that the status quo that allows those who study Torah to defer their army service is untenable. Netanyahu pledged several times to replace the Tal Law with “more equal and more just” legislation. The issue almost brought the current coalition to the ground. Now, with the 28 additional votes from Kadima, the government can go ahead and pass a law that will not be a softer version of its predecessor but will actually mandate military or national service for all citizens. Shas leader Eli Yishai will try his best to soften any proposals, but he is no longer needed for a majority.
Danny Danon: Currently a deputy speaker of the Knesset, he was the only Likud MK who came out swinging against the deal. “This agreement not only allows the leftist Kadima party to sneak into the government and saves it from a near-certain death, it also further entrenches Ehud Barak in the position of defense minister for another year and a half.” A champion of the Likud’s right wing, he ran this week against Netanyahu for the position of president of the party’s convention and was able to deal an embarrassing blow to the prime minister. Danon runs the danger of turning into a Moshe Feiglin-lite, and Netanyahu goes to great lengths to get rid of troublemakers.
Shaul Mofaz: Finally he can start calling himself deputy prime minister again, after he held that title from May 2006 to 2009 in the Ehud Olmert era. In the past, he also served as defense and transportation minister, but this time around he will have to make do with being a minister without portfolio. He resolutely refused to sit on the opposition bench, and his dream came true. He will want to credit himself as the savior of Kadima, which would have shrunken in elections from the Knesset’s strongest party to the fourth or fifth place.
But at what price? Opposition leaders have slammed his deal with Netanyahu, which came on the heels of his repeated pledges not to join the government. Since he left Likud in 2005 to join Kadima, after having declared a month earlier that he would never do such a thing, he has not been the most trusted politician around. He has now further further eroded any trust the public had in him. It is unlikely that he will be able to restore Kadima to the glory days when Israelis believed in a centrist party.
Now that Kadima joined a government with Likud, Shas, Yisrael Beytenu, and the national-religious Jewish Home party — which declared earlier this week that it would merge with the far-right National Union — it will be a hard sell to centrist voters. Rather than offering an alternative to Netanyahu’s policies, it seems that Kadima is being absorbed by its new senior partner into the right-wing bloc. Where will such a party find voters 17 months from now?
For now, Mofaz has spared his party near-certain collapse at early elections. But reporters derided him at his joint press conference with Netanyahu for having essentially surrendered Kadima to the Likud. How was he going to influence the government agenda as the sole Kadima minister? How was he going to restore his credibility? How was he going to shape Kadima to face the voters when elections do finally come next year? He will have to hope a year-and-a-half of government activity will provide some answers.
Shelly Yachimovich: The Labor leader commandeered the room and the microphone as soon as Netanyahu and Mofaz had finished their press conference. She unleashed a barrage of the bitterest criticism of the prime minister and his new deputy. And she vowed that their partnership would only bolster public dismay at their lack of principles and public faith in Labor’s.
There will certainly be voters who deeply doubt that the national interest was what primarily guided the prime minister and the Kadima leader. But Yachimovich has her own interest, too. Early elections were expected to boost Labor to 17 or 18 seats. Now, she has to wait more than a year to revive her party’s Knesset representation — precious months in which the new coalition just might tackle some of her flagship social and diplomatic issues. If Netanyahu and Mofaz do indeed achieve great things together, Labor’s appeal will be dented. If the alliance proves to be a case of more talk than action, then Yachimovich’s prediction — that Labor will do even better at the polls in late 2013 than it would have done in late 2012 — could well be realized.