international analysis and commentary

Israel’s new national unity government: the challenges ahead

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In a surprising move, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the newly elected head of Kadima, Shaul Mofaz, established a national unity coalition based on almost 80% of parliamentary seats in the Knesset. Many politicians and analysts questioned the democratic legitimacy of the new government. The deal was called “an alliance of cowards” (opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich/Israeli Labor Party), “corrupt and ugly” (Yair Lapid/Yesh Atid), and a “disgrace to the Israeli parliament” (Zahava Gal-On/Meretz).

Many Kadima members, notably also MKs, felt uneasy about the deal and even Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, a Likud member, expressed concern about the lack of sufficient parliamentary supervision. In a Ha’aretz poll, only one fourth of the Israeli public believed that the new coalition was built for the common good and, similarly, a poll by Maariv revealed that 70% of Israelis think it was motivated by political interest. This mirrors a growing distrust not only regarding the government, but the political system as a whole which has suffered many corruption and abuse scandals throughout the last years.

This distrust is multiplied by structural deficits of Israeli democracy. Arya Carmon, President of the Israeli Democracy Institute (IDI), has expressed hope that the new government could be a rare opportunity to carry out much needed reforms, including a raise of the low electoral threshold, which allows a fragmentation of the party system and the entrance of splinter parties in the Knesset (many of them from more extreme fringes of society) dominating coalition agendas disproportionally to their electoral weight. Such substantial reforms will meet much resistance, notably also from Orthodox and national-religious parties in Netanyahu’s own coalition.

The split between secular and Orthodox Israelis has indeed increased in recent years and the reform of the Tal Law, which so far enables Orthodox Israelis to skip military service, will add further explosives to the fragile relationship. In light of this, it is rather unlikely that the new unity government will follow the order of the Israeli High Court to evict the Ulpana and Migron settlements. The court verdict represented a rare ruling since, in the West Bank, the Israeli authorities apply their own version of the ancient Ottoman law code, under which all land was considered state land if not proven otherwise. In the Migron and Ulpana cases, Palestinians could prove their ownership of the land to the Israeli High Court.

While Kadima seems more inclined to do no further harm to the already weakened High Court, the mounting exploitation of so-called “state land” in favor of settlements under Prime Minister Netanyahu’s term makes a diversion from this policy unlikely. The Palestinian-Israeli author Salman Massalha has commented that what drove the move to form the unity government was the “Jewish messianic understanding of the ‘Land of Israel’” and so the situation for Palestinians remains the same under the old and new Netanyahu government.

In an early reaction to the new government, President Mahmoud Abbas has reiterated his key precondition for peace talks to resume, namely a settlement freeze, but Palestinians do not expect that a Netanyahu-led government will suddenly change its position. Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab argued that “this particular coalition created for opportunistic rather than principled reasons (despite claims to the contrary) is highly unlikely to take courageous steps for peace.” In contrast to this, Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, thinks that Netanyahu sought to establish a strong political center in Israel, which is willing to compromise provided that any agreement include a “large security component”. But as long as the Obama administration will be in full election mode and no significant pressure is exercised on Israel, the new government will not compromise the comfortable status quo, especially since public debate in Israel currently focuses on the “Iranian threat” instead of the peace process.

Iran was also the key international issue discussed in light of the Netanyahu-Mofaz deal. Clearly, the establishment of a national unity coalition increases the deterrence on Iran, since it – in theory – makes a strike more imaginable. Even though Mofaz has tried to shape his political profile as a major critic of such an attack, his positions might change if it serves his political interests. Nonetheless, a strike on Iran seems unlikely as long as the US administration opposes it. Israeli leaders have scaled down the war rhetoric and Iran has agreed to the P5+1 (US, China, Russia, France, Britain + Germany) talks in Baghdad. Emily Landau from the Israeli National Security Institute (INSS) commented that the “crisis has returned to its proper international framework” and that international actors have taken their responsibilities on the issue.

Israelis will be closely watching the results of the Baghdad talks. A survey of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs found that two-thirds of Jewish Israelis think the price of living with an Iranian bomb is higher than the price of attacking Iran. Netanyahu’s coalition is representing this majority and should the negotiations fail, he might pursue the military option also before Israeli elections in 2013, since it would likely drive the public towards the political right as did the Gaza War and the mounting international condemnation of it in 2009.