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Middle east

The reasons behind Israel’s new unity government

Text by Mehdi Chebil

Latest update : 2012-05-09

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called off elections after striking an unexpected deal with the country’s top opposition party. Professor Abraham Diskin told France 24 that the move is unlikely to have international repercussions.

The formation of a national unity government under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken the world by surprise, with several observers speculating over the implications for the country’s foreign policy.

Bibi’s grand coalition

Israel’s political system is based on proportional representation, which produces a proliferation of small political parties. There are 120 seats in the country’s parliament, the Knesset.

GOVERNING COALITION – 94 seats

Likud (right-wing nationalist) : 27 seats

Kadima (centre-right) : 28 seats

Yisrael Beitenou (secular ultra-nationalist): 15 seats

Shas (sephardic, Zionist, ultra-orthodox): 11 seats

Independence Party (Ehud Barak’s new party after quitting Labour): 5 seats

United Torah Judaism (Ashkenazi, anti-Zionist, ultra-orthodox): 5 seats

New National Religious Party (national-religious, Jewish settlers): 3 seats


OPPOSITION - 26 seats

Labour Party (left-wing): 8 seats

Meretz (social-democrat) 3 seats

Balad (Arab anti-Zionist): 3 seats

Hadash (Jewish and Arab Communists): 4 seats

Ra’am Ta’al (Arab anti-Zionist): 4 seats

National Union (far-right): 4 seats

 

The Israeli leader has struck an agreement with the country’s main opposition movement, the centrist Kadima Party, to form a coalition with 94 seats out of the 120-member parliament (Knesset). The deal was secretly crafted during a night of intense negotiations with the chairman of Kadima, Shaul Mofaz, as centrists were bracing for a snap election in September 2012.

Mofaz has become vice premier, thus joining Netanyahu’s inner cabinet and giving him a say in crucial decisions such as whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. But the stunning U-turn has left smaller opposition parties out in the cold – an angry Labour party leader described the coalition deal as a “covenant of cowards”.

France24 asked Abraham Diskin, an Israeli political science professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, what the surprise coalition deal meant for Israel’s domestic politics and foreign policy.

F24: Labour party officials expressed shock at the Likud-Kadima deal. Is there still an opposition in Israel?

Kadima actually accepted this deal out of fear of losing the September elections. According to opinion surveys, it would have been a disaster for the centrists, with Kadima losing about two thirds of its seats in the Knesset (from 28 to 10 seats). Several Kadima Knesset members I’ve met after the coalition deal were all smiles – they know there will be no drama in September. But they’re likely to pay the price for this coalition deal in the next election in October 2013.

Now, there are still some 26 Knesset members out of 120 in the opposition - including those from the Labour party, Arab parties, the Communist party, and the far-right National Union party. But I think that Labour is going to benefit from this coalition deal in the future. A large part of the Kadima electorate may consider that Shaul Mofaz sold out the party by joining a right-wing coalition.

Is this agreement going to limit the influence of the religious Shas party and the ultra-nationalists within Netanyahu’s coalition?

I think Netanyahu has always tried to do the utmost not to be dependent on religious and ultra-nationalist parties. I know he has long been portrayed like this in the international press, but that’s just not the reality. Netanyahu has always been more comfortable with centrist parties. For instance, when Ehud Barak split from the Labour party, Netanyahu was ready to give anything to bring him into his coalition.

That said, the trigger for this coalition deal was the pressure applied by High Court of Justice on the government to modify a law exempting ultra-orthodox males from military service. This was strongly opposed by the Shas party, a member of Netanyahu’s coalition. The alliance with Kadima will bring more support to the secular side, allowing the government to work out a solution based on equality between all Israeli citizens.

One of the reasons former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni didn’t want to join Netanyahu’s coalition was its refusal to seriously negotiate with the Palestinians. What does this deal imply for the Palestinians?

I don’t agree with Tzipi Livni and I think no progress was made in the negotiations because of the Palestinians’ position. Palestinian leaders are not ready to recognise Israel as a Jewish state; they still see it as a crusader state that will eventually disappear from the region’s map. On the contrary, Netanyahu was the first Likud leader to publicly accept the idea of a two-state solution. In any case, this unity government is likely to be in charge for only one year and a half and I don’t think that will be enough time to change anything in the Israeli-Palestinian relations.

This deal comes at a time of unprecedented tensions between Israel and Iran – is this show of unity a way to prepare Israel for an attack on Iran?

This coalition deal is above all an answer to problems of domestic politics, triggered by tensions within Netanyahu’s coalition between secular and religious parties over the Tal law (the law exempting ultra-orthodox males from military service). Now, it’s hard to imagine that Netanyahu and Mofaz didn’t talk about Iran. I don’t know what the exact options are but one thing is sure – it makes all military options more open. Netanyahu’s coalition has a wide base in the Knesset and the new Israeli government has no lack of military expertise with three previous Chiefs of Staff holding ministerial positions.

Date created : 2012-05-08

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