By Magdalena Kirchner
Just days after calling for early general elections this autumn, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a deal on May 8 with the leader of the country’s biggest opposition party Kadima, headed by former Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz.
What has been criticized harshly by opposition figures as an “alliance of the cowards” and “politics of the chairs” is praised by others, among them President Shimon Peres, as the formation of a national unity government, which would be stable and strong enough to tackle the country’s pressing problems and challenges.
Netanyahu and Mofaz – The King and the Hitchhiker
The agreement came as a surprise to many not only in terms of timing. Polls released in late April indicated that despite minor losses for the ruling right-center coalition, Netanyahu’s Likud party would have won the elections held back then, even gained four additional seats, and thus replaced Kadima as the biggest faction in the Knesset. Increasing support for Likud, but also the Labor party as well as the new Yesh Atid (“There’s a Future”) party was predicted to be accompanied by a dramatic decline of Kadima seats from the current 28 to only 13. This background reveals Mofaz’s announcement one month earlier that “Kadima is the governmental alternative to Netanyahu and I intend to […] lead the Israeli government on a new path,” and thus the preclusion of a unity government in a different light—as courage born out of despair. It seems however, that this courage had disappeared in the past weeks and gave way to a rather pragmatic approach in order to secure Kadima’s political survival. Furthermore, the bargain also served the interest of the current Prime Minister, whose government is now holding 94 of 120 Knesset seats and who is likely to get most of the credit for any of the unity government’s achievements.
Domestically, the biggest recent challenge to government stability has been the replacement of the Tal Law, currently enabling some 60,000 ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students—some 15% of all soldiers enlisted in the army—to defer their mandatory military service. Although this exemption, practiced since the early days of the state of Israel (known prior to 2002 under the term Torato Omanuto), was ruled illegal by the High Court of Justice this February, the Netanyahu government has not yet been able to find a compromise with the ultra-Orthodox community regarding its replacement. Another project on the agenda is the long overdue reform of the electoral system, which would decrease party system fragmentation and thus enhance government stability, a rather rare phenomenon in contemporary Israeli politics.
As Kadima had been one of the main opponents of both the Tal Law and the current electoral system in recent debates, Mofaz’ appointment as Deputy Prime Minister might provide the government with the necessary leverage to implement both the High Court’s ruling and the reform of the electoral system.
Although domestic challenges and the likely results of the upcoming elections clearly were the main drivers of the unity government formation, its foreign policy outcome should not be underestimated.
Concerning Iran, Netanyahu’s and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak’s increased saber-rattling policy broadened the rift between the government and the Israeli security establishment in the last months. Just recently, Yuval Diskin, former head of Shin Bet, and Lt. General Benny Gantz, current Chief of Staff, openly criticized the government for exaggerating the Iranian threat and endangering diplomatic success by overemphasizing the option of a—if necessary unilateral—military strike against Iran. Last summer, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan even called the idea of a military strike “stupid.” Shaul Mofaz had previously joined all three in their criticism and further claimed that the government had lost sight of the most important national security threat—the likely demise of the Jewish state if a two-state solution with the Palestinians would not be achieved in the near future. According to Haaretz columnist Amir Oren, hopes for vocal opposition within the political and security elite against the government’s current foreign policy were crushed by the agreement and the subsequent integration of senior Kadima figures in the foreign policy executive.
Given the boost of parliamentary support, the weakening of inconvenient allies, and the successful cooptation of former rivals as well as the upcoming presidential elections in the United States in November, which are likely to ease international pressure on Israel to deal with the Palestinian issue at least in the short run, Netanyahu’s government enjoys an unprecedented freedom of maneuver in the formulation of both domestic and foreign policy. How the newly-proclaimed “King of Israeli Politics” is going to use it remains open to question.
 Lis, J. and Ophir Bar-Zohar, „Netanyahu’s move for unity with Kadima unleashes political storm“, in Haaretz, 8.5.2012, http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/netanyahu-s-move-for-unity-with-kadima-unleashes-political-storm-1.428931.
 Kahn G., “Channel 10 Poll: Kadima Loses 13 Seats”, 28.3.2012, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/154263#.T6jDgY79KHs; see also Verter, Y., „After securing unity cabinet with Kadima, Netanyahu is now king of Israeli politics“, in Haaretz, 8.5.2012, http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/after-securing-unity-cabinet-with-kadima-netanyahu-is-now-king-of-israeli-politics-1.428901.
 Bar-Zohar, O. „The winners and losers in Netanyahu’s surprise move for unity with Kadima“, in Haaretz, 8.5.2012, http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/the-winners-and-losers-in-netanyahu-s-surprise-move-for-unity-with-kadima-1.428900;
 JPost, “Demonstrators set up Camp Sucker in J’lem”, 21.4.2012, http://www.jpost.com/NationalNews/Article.aspx?id=266981.
 Perry, D. and Diaa Hadid, „Yuval Diskin, Israel Former Intel Chief, Slams Netanyahu’s Iran Stance“, in Huffington Post, 28.4.2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/28/yuval-diskin-slams-netanyahu-iran_n_1461180.html.
 Oren, A. „Mofaz-Netanyahu cabinet may pave the way for an Israeli strike on Iran“ in Haaretz, 8.5.2012, http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/mofaz-netanyahu-cabinet-may-pave-the-way-for-an-israeli-strike-on-iran-1.428950.