Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to absorb the opposition Kadima Party into a gargantuan ruling coalition was probably not about foreign policy. With a growing rift between Israel’s secular and religious communities, the contentious issue of military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox students was already threatening Netanyahu’s conservative coalition. Instead of constantly covering his right flank, frequently under assault from his natural yet troublesome religious and nationalist allies, Netanyahu could have just as easily called new elections and strengthened the position of his own Likud Party, which was likely to gain seats.
Instead, in a political masterstroke that has impressed the prime minister’s critics and admirers alike, Netanyahu reached out to the centrist Kadima Party—composed largely of former Likudniks—and captured a parliamentary supermajority of 94 seats in the 120-seat body. In the process, the conservative leader cemented his grip on power and neutralized the right-wing gadflies that were poised to bring down his government.
The move does more to ensure Netanyahu’s continued survival as prime minister than anything else. But given the prominent role Netanyahu’s right-wing cabinet—particularly the settler bloc—has ostensibly played in staying the prime minister’s hand on the Palestinian peace process, the new arrangement should give Netanyahu plenty of political space to chart a more moderate course with respect to the Palestinians, should he be so inclined.
The neoconservative right in the United Statesseems unconcerned by Bibi’s gambit. Netanyahu and his partners, writes Jonathan Tobin at Commentary, “have much more in common on the question of dealing with the Palestinians than they differ. All support in principle a two-state solution and all understand that the only real obstacle to such a deal is the Palestinian refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.” Tobin also took the opportunity to “remind liberal American critics of Netanyahu just how far out of step they are with political reality in Israel.”
The move could also give Netanyahu a freer hand to launch a strike against Iran. However dimly his right-wing coalition partners may have regarded the Palestinians, they remained skeptical about an Israeli war with the Islamic Republic. His new partners may prove more easily persuaded.
On the one hand, notes J.J. Goldberg at the Forward, Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz has taken a more cautious line on Iranthan Netanyahu, deferring to former intelligence officials like Meir Dagan who oppose a unilateral Israeli strike. On the other, according to one Israeli military commentator, Netanyahu “can do whatever he wants. He just has to convince Mofaz to agree with him.” Jeffrey Golderg (who argues that the left “doesn’t matter very much in Israel these days”) noted that Netanyahu “would want to lead as broad a coalition as possible should the Iran issue come to a head,” adding that Netanyahu would no longer be pressured to launch an attack on Iran in the interim between an Israeli election in September and the U.S. election in November.
The new coalition also preserves the role of the unpopular defense minister Ehud Barak, a stringent Iran hawk who has slowly nudged Netanyahu into the hawkish camp. Unlike the most militant anti-Palestinian elements of Netanyahu’s cabinet, the most fervid anti-Iranian elements are staying on.
It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu will leverage his supermajority toward an ambitious policy agenda or simply toward his own political survival. But whatever he decides to do, he appears to have created sufficient political space to accomplish it comfortably. When it comes to Palestine and Iran, two issues of tension between Washington and Jerusalem on which Netanyahu has hidden behind his coalition, Washington should take note: they are negotiating with a man who controls his own political destiny. And they should hold him accountable for it.