Netanyahu, Supreme Leader
On Sunday night at the Likud conference, the settlers won the battle by embarrassing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and forcing him to postpone the vote on his presidency of the Likud’s convention. On early Tuesday morning, Netanyahu returned the favor, and won the war.
By striking the kind of deal he struck with Shaul Mofaz of Kadima, the deal of his life, the Prime Minister has put himself out of the reach of his party’s right wing, out of the reach of Lieberman’s machinations, out of the reach of Shas’ extortions, and out of the reach of Barack Obama. He’s also buried Yair Lapid, who must now go back and have a hard think about his next move. Netanyahu is also out of the reach of Labor’s Shelly Yechimovich, Meretz, and the Arab parties – in other words, the Opposition, which together make up no more than 25 Knesset mandates. That’s not even enough MKs to force Netanyahu to appear at a Knesset hearing to defend his government’s policies. Without any real opposition to his government, and without a quarrelsome coalition to worry about, Netanyahu has put himself beyond anyone’s reach. He has, in essence, become the most politically powerful prime minister in Israel’s history. He has become the Supreme Leader. Netanyahu is so powerful he can legislate basic laws if he wants to. Now everyone will be obedient: Mofaz for sure, Lieberman will be, the haredim will be, the settlers will be, Barak obviously; Yechimovich is weakened, Lapid is destroyed. Netanyahu, like a supreme leader, has left destruction and creation in his wake. But with such power comes immense responsibility, and the pitfalls of hubris.
If Netanyahu can keep this coalition government together until October 2013, the date of the next elections, and if he wins those elections and manages to stay in power for a full third term after that, his combined rule as Prime Minister of Israel would be about 11.5 years. Just under David Ben Gurion’s combined 12 years.
And while Barack Obama will fight for four more years, Netanyahu has all but assured himself five-and-a-half more years in power. Netanyahu may be the Israeli PM until January 2018.
What effect will the deal have on the burning issues of the day? Netanyahu now leads a centrist government of 94 MKs, a wide and stable coalition. Foreign news organizations can no longer call his government a “narrow right-wing coalition government.” As his new coalition partner Mofaz said Tuesday, there is now a golden opportunity to make some deep, historic structural changes to Israeli society and politics. To change the system of government, to address the imbalance in the burden of military and national service, and to attempt a territorial compromise with the Palestinians. No previous Israeli prime minister has managed to do all three, largely because no previous Israeli prime minister has had such a wide coalition, with 94MKs, and such potential stability and power. In short, no Israeli prime minister has been a Supreme Leader before.
Netanyahu and Mofaz have set the bar very high for their joint government: producing an alternative to the Tal Law, changing the system of government, forging a deal with the Palestinians, and passing a balanced budget.
The question now is if we will see Netanyahu wield such power wisely and manage to make all these changes. Will we see what Netanyahu really wants, his diplomatic vision? Will the Palestinians miss another opportunity to make peace, now that their Israeli partner seems to be in a prime position to deliver a deal? Will there be progress on the Palestinian track? Potentially. Polls have consistently shown a majority of Israelis in favor of a peace deal with the Palestinians based on territorial swaps and solid security guarantees. It won’t be easy, and the American administration might push harder on Netanyahu now that he has the political depth to make such a deal.
Will Netanyahu change the Tal Law. Netanyahu will want to keep the ultra-Orthodox in the coalition if he can, just in case Mofaz or Lieberman or both play any dirty tricks on him. So he’ll have to find a watered-down Tal Law alternative, just strong enough to satisfy the secular middle class, and just weak enough not to break the china with the haredim. But even if the haredim bolt, Netanyahu will stay with a strong 78MKs.
Will we see changes in the system of government – this is the wet dream of many people, but this will be very hard to achieve, again because of the ultra-Orthodox parties, who will want to maintain the status quo. But even without Shas and UTJ, Netanyahu’s government will be strong enough to survive and make serious changes.
What about Iran? With or without a wide national unity government, Netanyahu would have made his own decision on whether to attack Iran alone, i.e. without American backing, or even American knowledge, with Mofaz or without Mofaz. But having Mofaz, a former chief of staff and minister of defense at his side, and with Ehud Barak on his other side, Netanyahu will feel more confident regarding the way forward regarding Iran. While it may make it easier now for the PM to strike Iran, he still has to wait out the P5+1 negotiations, currently scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad.