There are two ways to read the grand coalition deal that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cooked up with Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz on May 8. One is that the wily Netanyahu has once again outwitted his rivals, bought another year as grandmaster of Israeli politics, neutralized the plodding Mofaz and gained almost wall-to-wall backing if he attacks Iran. Mofaz, in this reading, appended his 28-member Knesset caucus to the ruling Likud’s 27 in order to save his neck from a September 4 snap election, which would have cut Kadima’s strength by nearly two-thirds.
This is the prevailing reading among independent observers who didn’t get a spot around the new feeding trough. That’s a pretty limited category, though — mostly limited to the few politicians left in the opposition, plus contrarians, journalists and confirmed Bibi-haters (is that redundant?).
The other reading is that Bibi was headed for a cliff and Mofaz offered him a lifeline that saves them both — in exchange for a hefty turn to the left. Sound impossible? Actually, it’s nigh inescapable.
First, consider the polls. Three different polls released a week before the unity bombshell showed Netanyahu emerging from a September election with the biggest Knesset bloc by far, a commanding 31 seats in the 120-seat house, versus 18 for Labor, the runner-up. Unfortunately, the polls also showed him with a unstable coalition of 61 seats, tops.
Even more alarming was the May 6 Likud convention, where Bibi unexpectedly found himself outflanked by a large, well-organized pro-settler right. Associates say he feared if he won in September he’d end up “a hostage” to extremists unless he found new allies.
Assuming he made it to September, that is. First he has to get past two political landmines planted for him by the Supreme Court. By July 1 he must dismantle five buildings illegally erected on private Arab land in the Beit El settlement. Evicting the 30 families is sure to turn ugly. If he proceeds, he infuriates his pro-settler flank, sparking mass defections to the far right on September 4 and rendering a new coalition even harder. If he defies the court, he faces trouble with Likud moderates.
Then comes the court’s August 1 deadline to annul the Tal Law, which guarantees unlimited army deferments for yeshiva students, and to replace it with some form of universal service. That means either a blow-up with his Haredi/ultra-Orthodox allies — distinct from the modern-Orthodox settler community — or a crisis with his secularist flank, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.