Though Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents were quick to dub his latest political move a cynical ploy, the Israeli prime minister’s surprise formation of a unity government with Kadima, just days after announcing that early elections would be called in September, was neither cynical nor a ploy. Without Kadima, he truly had no choice but to call new elections. With Kadima, new elections are a costly waste of time.
Netanyahu faced two critical issues his government couldn’t resolve in its existing composition. One was the need to pass new legislation on drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students by August 1, when the Supreme Court’s invalidation of a law exempting them from service takes effect. There is no solution to this problem that would be acceptable to both of Netanyahu’s main coalition partners: Yisrael Beiteinu wouldn’t accept anything that continues the exemptions, while the ultra-Orthodox Shas party wouldn’t accept anything that doesn’t. Yet if either of them quit, Netanyahu would lose his parliamentary majority.
For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the last-minute deal concluded yesterday to put off elections and bring the Kadima Party into his coalition is another instance of his crafty strategy producing a heads, I win, tails, you lose moment in Israeli politics. Though the scenario in which he went to the polls in September to get a new and larger mandate from the people would have put him in a very strong position, adding Kadima and its new leader Shaul Mofaz to the Cabinet serves him just as well. The 94-seat majority (out of 120 seats in the Knesset) that he will now have for the next year and a half with elections postponed until the originally scheduled date in October 2013 will be strong enough to withstand any possible challenge from both allies like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu Party and foes on the left.
Though most foreign observers will jump to the conclusion that the Tehran-born Mofaz will provide Netanyahu with the internal backing needed to attack Iranian nuclear targets sometime in the next year, most Israelis are thinking more about the possibility of the largest secular parties now being able to unite to deal with question of military service for the ultra-Orthodox. This ought to make clear to even the dimmest of American observers of the Middle East — especially those so-called “liberal Zionists” who harbor unrealistic ambitions to remake the Jewish state in the image of American Jewry —not only the strength of Netanyahu’s ascendancy but how little the left counts in Israeli politics anymore.