Real Winner in Israel Deal? Not Bibi.

Eluding Pitfalls, Netanyahu May Now Think About Legacy

Behind the Deal: Most observers missed the most important aspects of the grand coalition deal struck by Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz.
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Behind the Deal: Most observers missed the most important aspects of the grand coalition deal struck by Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published May 10, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
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Then there’s the likely indictment of Lieberman in the coming weeks on decade-old fraud and money-laundering charges. This would rattle Lieberman’s 15-seat Yisrael Beiteinu caucus and probably blow a big hole in Netanyahu’s coalition with or without the Supreme Court.

Bringing in Kadima allows Bibi to weather all these crises by giving him a super-broad, defection-proof coalition.

Of course, the unity deal saves Mofaz’s neck no less than Netanyahu’s. That’s the part everyone’s talking about. The common assumption is that Mofaz is cravenly salvaging his career and his party by crawling back into the Likud. This is a reasonable reading — if you don’t know anything about Mofaz.

Remember, this is a guy who has served as defense minister, IDF chief of staff, chief of Central Command (in charge of the West Bank) and a member of the Sayeret Matkal — the same crack commando unit that produced Bibi and Ehud Barak. You don’t build a resume like that by being anybody’s patsy. Those who’ve worked with him call him a thoughtful, fiercely determined strategist and, rare in Israeli politics, a straight-shooter.

Reading the text of the coalition agreement, it’s hard not to think Mofaz got more out of the deal than Netanyahu. Of course, there’s no dishonor in choosing survival over certain extinction. But this does more. It gives Mofaz 17 months to strengthen his image as a serious alternative while leading the Knesset’s largest faction. Netanyahu, instead of obliterating his rivals in September and enjoying a new four-year term, spends the next year and a half sharing power with Mofaz.

On policy, neither partner commits to the other’s views, but Mofaz gains a voice he didn’t have before. He gets a seat on the inner security cabinet, which makes the final decision on attacking Iran. The cabinet has rejected an attack before, under pressure from security chiefs Meir Dagan, Yuval Diskin and Gabi Ashkenazi, but Netanyahu and Barak have been wearing down the resistance and firing the critics. Now, at least, there’s one more vote against a strike.

The coalition agreement promises, without details, to seek renewed peace talks with the Palestinians, aiming for an agreement that ensures Israel’s future as “a Jewish, democratic state.” Mofaz has urged since 2009 that Israel offer the Palestinians immediate statehood within “provisional” borders, and then enter state-to-state negotiations toward a final accord. To allay Palestinian suspicions that the interim borders would become permanent, he’d have Israel commit in writing that a final agreement would be equivalent to 100% of the West Bank, with 1-to-1 swaps. Now he can say it from the inside.

Right now, though, aides say the new government has just two purposes: Replacing the Tal Law and reforming Israel’s byzantine electoral system, to end blackmail by fringe factors. Those issues have hamstrung Israeli governance for years. Netanyahu’s offer to Mofaz created “a window of opportunity for a broad, civic government” to make “historic changes,” Kadima party secretary Yohanan Plessner told an Israel Policy Forum conference call May 9. Kadima is now preparing new legislation to meet the August 1 court deadline. “If Netanyahu will accept a serious proposal, we can go forward.” If not, Kadima walks out.

Plessner isn’t the only one wondering about Netanyahu’s motivations. What will he get at the end of all this? Why invite a rival to sit alongside him and work to undermine his principles? Is he so sure he can outmaneuver Mofaz? Or is it just possible that he sees the wheels of history turning?

Consider this: Netanyahu is often called Israel’s “most American” politician. And in the words of Netanyahu’s great hero, Winston Churchill, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”

It’s been said that Netanyahu would never rethink his views until after his father died. Nobody expected the change would come the day the shiva ended, but hey, life is full of surprises.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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