Political Deadlock in Israel

The conscription controversy was merely a pretext. Why Netanyahu's coalition actually crumbled.

When Kadima, the largest party in Israel, decided to pull out of the political coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, the ostensible reason was the question of whether the country would draft a few thousand ultra-Orthodox young men into the army. But this dramatic political development comes at a time of some significant undercurrents in the country that perhaps overshadow that ostensible rationale for the coalition breakup.

For one thing, the vicious terrorist attack on an Israeli tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, which took the lives of eight people and wounded more than two dozen, was quickly attributed to Iran (although there is no evidence that the terrorist had anything to do with Shia Islam). This gave Netanyahu an opening to declare that this heinous act—reminiscent of the traumatic years of Palestinian terrorist attacks that killed hundreds of Israeli bus travelers and innocent shoppers—would be met with an appropriate retaliatory response. Still, on the surface the rift between Kadima and Netanyahu’s Likud Party had nothing to do with the critical dilemma of whether to attack Iran or give further chance for the Western-imposed sanctions against the Islamic Republic to work.

Likewise, no one is linking the coalition split to the frozen peace process between Israel and the Palestinians or the debate within Israel over the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. And, similarly, there’s no evidence Kadima was influenced by any rift over the distribution of the national wealth, an emotional question that brought back to the streets the “social justice” activists who a year ago generated street protests of unprecedented dimension.

No, this dramatic political break occurred when Netanyahu and Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz failed to agree on a reasonable compromise on the draft issue, which has no impact whatever on Israel’s national strategic interests (though the issue’s ultimate resolution could stir violent uprisings in the country and lead to an overcrowding problem in Israeli prisons).

But under the surface, the dynamics of the Mofaz decision are more complicated—and are related more than generally acknowledged to the issue of the occupied territories. Hence, to an extent, the conscription controversy simply became the pretext for an emergency exit from a political deadlock.

Last year, Mofaz introduced an extremely dovish peace plan, which included an agreement to hand over to the Palestinians most of the West Bank, as well as territorial compensation for settlement blocks that are alongside the pre-1967 borders. From his position as the leader of the opposition and the chairman of the Knesset’s foreign-relations and security committee, he did not miss an opportunity to criticize Netanyahu's “peace policy.”

Hence, it’s noteworthy that in the period that Mofaz spent in the inner cabinet, not a single discussion was conducted on the question of how to get back to the negotiating table and save the two-state solution. On the other hand, the government spent hours in an attempt to find a way to legalize illegal outposts that were built on Palestinian private land. It is symbolic that a few hours after the Kadima faction in the Knesset announced its decision to pull out of the coalition, Netanyahu announced that he welcomed the decision of the academic council in the occupied territories to upgrade the college in the settlement of Ariel, located in the heart of the West Bank, to that of a research university.

When Netanyahu was in partnership with Kadima, his “wall-to-wall” coalition consisted of 94 Knesset members out of 120. The idea was this would enhance the wily prime minister’s maneuverability and allow him to adopt a more dovish platform in regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This was worth the price of marginalizing the opposition and eroding the checks and balances of the Israeli democracy.

All that is now gone, if indeed Netanyahu ever truly wanted that kind of maneuverability on the West Bank in the first place. Now he is back to the situation in which political crises allow Netanyahu to veil his dogmatism behind the pretext of his "vulnerable coalition”—meaning he once again has a tight political excuse for moving to the right. The terrorist attack in Burgas enables him to leverage "Islam phobia" and to question those who are not completely on the Israeli side. It also helps him portray Kadima as a party that puts political and personal interests ahead of national consensual interests.

Thus, in order to attack Iran or maintain the status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, or both, Netanyahu is well served by a coalition of sixty-five right-wing and Orthodox members of Knesset. Before the Kadima alliance, he managed to rule quite well for three years with that contingent. Netanyahu can assume that President Barack Obama, who recently conceded his failure to move the peace process forward, will leave him alone at least until the presidential elections in November. If Obama is reelected, Netanyahu will seek to avoid American pressure by initiating early elections in the winter of 2013. The image of Kadima as a flip-flop, spineless party will play a major role in the Likud's campaign. Netanyahu will keep talking about his commitment to peace, based on the two-state solution, and at the same time will continue creating facts on the ground that will militate against any real two-state outcome.

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