PM’s political masterstroke buys him room for maneuver. How will he use it?

Netanyahu never wanted early elections. But is staving them off more than a tactical victory?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a late night Knesset meeting Monday night (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a late night Knesset meeting Monday night (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

Minutes after the news broke that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz had sealed a deal on a unity government, Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz was tweeting: “We thought it was all over, but no. What’s happening right now is a major trick that stinks, perhaps one of the dirtiest tricks in the history of the state. A prime minister with neither a compass nor a conscience, and a desperate opposition leader who is corrupt to the bone.”

The fury on the left was easy to understand. Horowitz’s own party, Meretz, might not have gotten a significant boost from elections on September 4. But the main center-left party, Labor, was heading for a healthy upsurge, as was new political leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Kadima, that unreliable, hard-to-define centrist faction, looked to be disintegrating.

The Netanyahu-Mofaz deal changes all that. And the anger on the left is only part of the reason for the pleasure Netanyahu must be feeling at what he and his supporters will doubtless depict as a political masterstroke.

At the eleventh hour, just before his colleagues were set to vote the 18th Knesset into history, Netanyahu achieved a whole slew of tactical victories. He widened his coalition to include the largest party in parliament, signing the deal with Mofaz that he and the former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni could not bring themselves to ratify no matter how beneficial each might have believed it to be for their parties and the nation. He now heads a vast coalition in which the minor parties immediately muster less influence and have consequently less capacity to try to manipulate the national agenda for their narrower needs.

Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman may have quickly welcomed the deal, but it reduces his party’s ability to threaten coalition crises over legislation such as the successor to the Tal Law on national service for the ultra-Orthodox.

Netanyahu has also spared himself a battle with the right wing of his own party over the selection of a Knesset slate for early elections. That’s a battle he’ll yet have to fight, but one he can now prepare for with more leisure. He saw at the Likud convention on Sunday that influence within the party is shifting to the right. For now, he can shelve the problem, though it will come back to haunt him if he leaves it for too long.

In Mofaz, he has a partner who demonstrably wants to sit in government, and with whom he quite plainly can find a common and expedient language. Mofaz might have tried to drive a harder bargain. He could have pushed for more Kadima cabinet seats, and for a more senior ministry of his own. Evidently, though, he wanted a deal done quickly — just as Netanyahu did. The last thing Mofaz wanted was to face the voters with Kadima heading for only 12 or so seats. For him, this partnership delays the day of reckoning for a party in freefall.

Netanyahu has now avoided the early elections that would have seen Labor likely soaring from the 13 seats it won last time to 17 or 18 — the second-largest party in the Knesset, and led by a credible champion of social justice in Shelly Yachimovich. And Lapid, the ex-TV news anchor, will have to cool his heels a while now; Netanyahu will hope the Lapid bubble will burst long before the old-new scheduled election date in late 2013.

The prime minister, with Kadima at his side, is also now potentially capable of taking a more centrist position on dealings with the Palestinians and over settlements. It’s by no means clear that he wants to do so. But he has room for maneuver now if he wishes to use it. And the Americans and the rest of the international community will be well aware of the fact.

Many pundits felt Netanyahu and Livni did the Israeli electorate a disservice in not building a unity government after the 2009 elections. That coalition might have introduced electoral reform, tackled the issue of social inequality, drawn up territorial red lines for dealing with the Palestinians, and more widely represented Israelis on major issues such as facing the challenge of Iran. Now, more than three years later, some of those opportunities may still be there.

Alternatively, the Netanyahu-Mofaz partnership could come to be recognized as a cynical exercise in narrow political expediency — as MK Horowitz immediately branded it — one that made the prime minister’s life a little easier, staved off the collapse of a party that had outlived its purpose, and maintained a damaging leadership paralysis for an Israel confronted by a worrying array of threats.

Netanyahu never really wanted early elections. Now that he’s avoided them, how is he going to use the time?

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