Team of Rivals

Stability and order, those are the pillars that enable a democratically elected politician to successfully pursue their agenda. And stability and order are exactly what Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, has guaranteed for himself and for his party by creating a new national unity government with his rivals.

This new national unity government should have come as no surprise.

The new coalition now controls 94 of 120 Knesset seats. Never before in the history of Israeli politics has the governing coalition been so broad, so strong and so stable. Kadima, Netanyahu’s rival party, under its recently ousted leader Tzippi Livni would not have entered into a coalition with Likud. Shaul Mofaz, the newly elected leader of Kadima, has done what Livni could not. He has, in his own words, ‘corrected a historic wrong.’

Mofaz knows that Kadima belonged in the coalition from the very beginning. In 2009, Israel’s last election, Kadima garnered twenty eight seats, the largest number of seats of any party – but they could not form a government. Likud, with twenty seven seats and Netanyahu at the helm, formed a government along with the Labor party which is ostensibly to the left of Kadima, the central party.

The newly elected head of Kadima is a perfect partner for the Likud leader. Shaul Mofaz is a hawk on issues of security. He served as defense minister under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and was a successful chief of staff of the IDF, Israel’s army. He is Iranian by birth, born in Teheran, to parents who came, originally, from Isfahan. His given name was Shahram Mofazzez Zadeh, a very ethnic sounding name Shaul Mofaz has the ring of a true Israeli name. Mofaz deeply understands Iranians, not just their language but also their mind set. He has a more liberal point of view than does Netanyahu on economics and social welfare. They are the perfect counter balance to each other.

Kadima is really a center- center/left party. And Likud is center center/right. The coalition they have formed is now strongly center based. It is so strongly center that even if a party or two on either side of the spectrum should decide to leave the coalition it will have no impact on the stability of the government.

This is not an insider baseball issue. The ramifications of this newly formed coalition in Israel will not affect only Israeli society. This broad unity government under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz has carte blanch on issues connected to security, Iran, and the Palestinians peace process issues of vital import to the greater region and to the West.

How and why? I’ll explain.

One of the most important messages this newly created coalition sends out is a message to Iran. Israel’s electorate and their ruling parties are now totally aligned on the issue of the dangers of Iran. Despite the recent and very public debate and critique about if, when or how to deal with Iran the only issue to be dealt with now is timing. The Israeli message to Iran is clear: your nuclear technology and capability threatens us, we will deal with it, we just have to decide when.

The Israeli government is now almost totally united on issues of security. That means that when the government decides to strike there will be no need to break ranks. Iran has to realize that now, more than ever before, Israel is poised to strike. And that is a frightening reality for the United States and by extension the greater Western world on the eve of a US presidential election.

Will this throw a wrench into the Obama presidential campaign and destroy his plan to use Iran as a lever to help win the election? People might ask what is the Obama plan on Iran and do they have one worked out and the answer is that they are still planning the plan. Now the Obama plan, whatever it may turn out to be, will have little impact. The Israelis have the plan, the means and the unity to proceed on their own.

The newly formed coalition government of Israel is also united on the peace process. That ball is now in the Palestinians’ court. It is the Palestinians who must decide to pursue peace or not to pursue peace.

Unlike the Americans, the Israelis have concluded that the Palestinians are not ready to move ahead. They have concluded that the Palestinians want far too much and do not want to compromise. So Israel is simply waiting. Of course, Israel realizes that the next generation of Palestinian leadership may be even less accommodating neighbors, but the Israelis have had enough of giving with no Palestinian follow through. Now, with no pressure from rival parties and with no need to capitulate to external pressure, Israel can comfortably adopt a wait and see policy vis a vis the Palestinians.

Internal domestic issues will still be confronted, debated and fought over in Israel—that will not change. And some parties may bolt from the Netanyahu/Mofaz coalition. But the coalition will remain strong. One thing is certain: Israel’s coalition and governing party is more stable now than it has been in years.

Shrinking Confidence

The public bloodletting that the Labor Party presented to the Israeli public this week has exposed the depth of disarray and confusion on the Israeli left following Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s massive defeat at the polls.

Labor’s Central Committee ultimately voted by a 2-1 margin Monday to join Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon’s proposed national unity government.

But the margin masks the magnitude of division within Labor about the proper course of action for a party that, until the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada five months ago, was convinced that its path as the standard-bearer of Israel’s peace camp was the correct one.

Farther to the left, the Meretz Party also is in disarray.

Barak, the man who sought to lead Labor into a unity government until he realized the extent of his colleagues’ loathing, didn’t even bother to attend Monday’s raucous Central Committee meeting.

Much as the septuagenarian Sharon stepped in to resuscitate the ailing Likud after Benjamin Netanyahu’s defeat in 1999, it was left to party elder Shimon Peres, 78, to swing Laborites to his vision of the party’s role.

In arguing passionately for a unity government, Peres faced down Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and Knesset faction chair Ofir Pines-Paz, all of whom argued that Labor was in effect selling its soul to join Sharon.

Peres castigated the doves for being "out of touch" with the people and assured the party that the great majority of the public wants a unity government.

"The time has come to listen to the nation for once," Peres said in a plea for unity, as supporters clapped and hecklers booed. "For once, listen to the will of the nation."

Labor would emerge strengthened from a period in the unity government, Peres argued; in opposition, it would do little but make speeches during a period of national crisis.

Beilin, Peres’s political protege and one of the main opponents of a unity government, said Labor’s only purpose would be to extend the life of an ill-fated coalition under Sharon.

"Shimon, I love you, but listening to your remarks, I want to cry," Beilin said.

As the dust settled on Tuesday, Beilin warned that Sharon could not count on unified support from Labor members in important Knesset votes.

"Sharon has to know that there will be Knesset members who won’t be able to support him," Beilin told Israel’s Army Radio. "He is getting only a part of the Labor Party."

Yet what the opponents of unitydidn’t say at Monday’s meeting was as telling as what they did.

More important than the abuse and recrimination hurled around the hall was the fact that the losers in the struggle made no threat to split the party.

Immediately after Sharon’s huge election victory on Feb. 6, Beilin began an open flirtation with Meretz leader Sarid, with his eye on fashioning a new social democratic party from the bulk of Meretz’s membership and Labor breakaways.

The assumption was that Labor’s accession to a unity government — presumably, at that time, under the defeated Barak — would trigger a sizable breakaway movement. But on Monday, it was painfully clear to the doves that any split would be of discouragingly modest proportions.

Indeed, Meretz also seems in no shape for new political adventures. Sarid has been strongly criticized within the party for his decision a month before the election not to support Peres’ bid to run for premier.

With polls at the time showing Peres giving Sharon a neck-and-neck race, Peres had sought the support of Meretz’s 10 Knesset members — the minimum number required to back a candidacy — to present his own, alternative candidacy from the left.

Sarid’s decision effectively enshrined Barak — who was trailing massively in the polls — as the peace camp’s candidate.

Now there are some in Meretz who believe Sarid, too, should resign as party leader.

There even are a few voices in Meretz that favor joining Sharon’s unity coalition, if the prime minister-elect agrees to leave out the far-right party led by politicians Avigdor Lieberman and Rehavam Ze’evi.

To some on the left, these currents in Labor and Meretz reflect how severely the Israeli peace camp has lost its sense of confidence — and, some would say, its direction.

This is due not only to Barak’s massive electoral defeat. Rather, it is the bleak realization that Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority rejected a peace package presented by Barak and President Clinton that represented Israel’s ultimate red line.

While many suggest the package could have been presented more sensitively and gracefully, Israeli peaceniks don’t see what more of substance could have been offered.

In any case, Arafat’s response was a low-level war that exploded the world view the peace camp has carefully nurtured since the famous 1993 handshake on the White House lawn that set the peace process in motion.

The left in Israel is now so discomfited that it doesn’t have the strength to split, regroup and launch a new and more homogenous peace party.

While some aspirants for Labor’s leadership are competing for the party’s eight ministerial slots in the unity government, Labor doves are refusing to serve in Sharon’s Cabinet.

They can now devote all their energies to the looming battle for party leadership.

One of those doves, Burg, hopes to turn the widespread dismay in the party to his advantage in the leadership primaries.

Others, including, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, outgoing communications minister, hopes a ministerial position in Sharon’s Cabinet will help his bid to become Labor leader.

If Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh is nominated for defense minister by Labor’s Central Committee, that will certainly whet his appetite for a leadership bid.

Other possible candidates for party leader are Ben-Ami — who still insists that a peace agreement with the Palestinians was just around the corner — and Haim Ramon, who favors a unity government but has taken himself out of the running for Sharon’s Cabinet.

Both will be watching reaction to the unwieldy and heterogeneous unity government before deciding whether to compete for Labor leader.

Peres, who on Monday ridiculed Ben-Ami’s contention that a peace deal was at hand, is likely to become interim party leader, but has said he does not want the job on a permanent basis.

Balancing Acts

Prime Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Ariel Sharon are trying to get their respective parties to join a national unity government before the Knesset begins its winter session Monday.

They are calling it a “government of national emergency” and insisting that the ongoing violence engulfing the Palestinian territories makes its creation a historic necessity.

But their supporters in the Labor and Likud parties seem unconvinced, and certainly unenthusiastic.Several Labor ministers and legislators are arguing that a partnership with the Likud would mean the end of even the most slender remaining hope of reviving the peace process.

And many Likud legislators are arguing that to join with Barak now would rescue him from almost certain defeat in a Knesset no-confidence vote, perhaps as early as next week, and also from his likely defeat in the early elections that would follow his government’s collapse.

Likud lawmakers also argue that Barak, his policies in tatters, should be forced out in a no-confidence vote, and a candidate who can win the peoples’ confidence should be elected in his place.

They are not, however, necessarily referring to Sharon.

Beyond the surface of the Labor-Likud negotiations looms the presence of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is more popular, according to all the opinion polls, than either Barak or Sharon.

Political observers believe that Netanyahu’s would-be return to active politics is motivating Barak and Sharon to override the opposition within each of their parties and press ahead with forging a unity government.

Both party leaders, according to the observers, want to defer elections. This is because Barak and Sharon are certain that once elections are declared, Netanyahu will plunge back into politics – first for the Likud leadership in the party’s primary, and then in the general elections for the premiership.

For now, Netanyahu has been playing a cautious and statesmanlike hand. On Tuesday, speaking from Paris, Netanyahu said he favored a unity government – but only if it were set up for a limited period, defined in advance, and if all parties agreed that following this limited period general elections would be held.

Netanyahu noted that, though not a legislator, he is still a card-carrying member of the Likud Central Committee, the party’s highest policy-making body, and that he would doubtless make his voice heard whenever the committee meets.Later Tuesday, at a stormy meeting of Likud legislators, Michael Eitan demanded that if the party does join a unity government, then Netanyahu should be appointed one of its ministers.

A majority of the legislators plainly opposed a unity government, but Sharon managed to prevent a vote.The negotiations with Labor were expected to continue, with the Likud Central Committee having the final word.Among Labor officials, dovish ministers like Yossi Beilin and Shlomo Ben-Ami have been speaking bitterly – although privately so far – against a unity government.

Beilin announced Monday that he would quit the government if Sharon obtains – as he has demanded – the right of veto over future peace moves as a member of a unity government.

If Barak and Sharon do manage to force their will on their colleagues, and a unity government is set up, the initial reaction abroad is expected to be one of anger.

Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount on Sept. 28 is regarded among many of Israel’s friends in Europe as responsible, at least in part, for the current wave of violence rocking the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

President Clinton himself has reportedly sought in recent weeks to dissuade Barak from forming a government with Sharon.

In the Arab world, Sharon is regarded as an inveterate warmonger, and Israeli diplomatic and public relations officials will have to work overtime to allay fears that his inclusion in a unity government is a prelude to some massive military initiative against the Palestinians.

Barak insists that these negative effects will be transient and that they will be dwarfed by the sense of unity and national purpose that will engulf the nation once Labor and Likud are seen to be pooling their forces and setting aside their differences.

In this, the prime minister harks back to the examples of past unity governments, especially to the one created in May 1967, during the unnerving “waiting period” before the Six-Day War.

At that time, street demonstrations took place protesting against the government of Levi Eshkol’s perceived hesitancy to deal with the threat facing the Jewish state.

The upshot was that Eshkol had Moshe Dayan, then an opposition legislator, join the Cabinet as minister of defense. Also, the ostracized Gahal bloc – the largest of the constituents that later formed the Likud – of Menachem Begin joined the government.

Today, too, the polls consistently show that a majority of the nation would like to see a unity government formed and that they would feel more secure and confident following such a move.

But opponents of the move, from both sides of the political divide, cite the Labor-Likud unity governments of the 1980s as more pertinent examples.

At that time, neither of the large parties was capable of forming a stable coalition. In election after election, they emerged virtually tied. As a result, a unity government was the only option.

For Labor, under Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, this spelled diplomatic paralysis.

Even when Foreign Minister Shimon Peres managed to reach a breakthrough agreement with King Hussein of Jordan in 1987, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was able to foil it, since it provided for concessions that Shamir was not prepared to contemplate.

Beilin and the other opponents of unity now say the same state of paralysis would descend on Israel today if Likud joins the government.