Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Great Day for Israel?

Today's shocking announcement of a deal for a unity government in Israel was a political earthquake, delaying elections for a year longer than was previously expected.  The addition of Kadima, under Shaul Mofaz to Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition, provides Israel with its most stable government in history, 94 Knesset seats out of 120, at just the time Israel needs it most.  While stunning in its timing, it is important to note that Mofaz has long been an advocate of exploring a unity government, and it was one of the factors that led to his primary victory over Tzipi Livni for Kadima party leadership. So this is more of a Brad-and-Angelina-are-getting-married kind of stunner than a Jimmy Carter-settles-in-Kiryat Arba kind of shock.  But shocking nonetheless.

The government is now for more stable, centrist and secular than before, with one of the prime objectives being to reform the electoral system to make it much harder for fringe parties to dictate policy.  While it might be too much to expect this unity government to begin work on Israel's long needed constitution, this super majority will be less beholden to those parties who have opposed the enshrinement in law of some of the basic freedoms that we in the US have long taken for granted.

Almost everyone is a winner:

  • Kadima was expected to lose 2/3 of its seats in elections this September; now they have a chance to rebuild support as a moderating force from within the government. 
  • PM Netanyahu, who keeps Ehud Barak around for a while as defense minister (new elections would have likely resulted in Barak being voted out of power).
  • Bibi also gains a lever to use against both Avigdor Lieberman's party, the increasingly strident right wing of his own party, and the Ultra Orthodox parties, while pursuing policies anathema to each (removing a controversial settlement outpost and requiring the Ultra Orthodox to do national or military service). He also will be able to moderate his positions before a global audience. Lieberman is still a loose cannon as Foreign Minister, but he is no longer a kingmaker.
  • The U.S. is a winner too, gaining some confidence knowing that Mofaz will be a moderating element both in terms of Iran and the peace process, and Israel is less likely to spring the dreaded October surprise during the US Election campaign. Some feel that this unity government will actually give Netanyahu the backing to attack Iran, similar to 1967, when a unity government was formed just before the start of the Six Day War.  But there is no question that Mofaz and his MKs will make a premature and reckless attack much less likely.
  • The Labor Party is balking, but they could also be a winner today, because they are now the sole voice of opposition and can build support from the outside, focusing on economic inequities.
  • Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid appear to be left out of this equation.  Livni is in a self imposed hiatus from politics after having lost to Mofaz in recent Kadima elections.  Lapid left TV stardom to start his own party, basing his platform on the economic disenchantment of Israel's "99 percent" who took to the streets last summer.  Lapid's star was shining brightly and he may now take a hit, but Livni might be ready to return to politics after a year on the lecture circuit, and Lapid's party might be where she lands.  I heard Lapid at AIPAC and was impressed.  In October of '13, the inequalities of Israeli society will not have been resolved, but other security concerns may recede to the back burner just enough for Israel to have a rare "It's the economy, stupid" vote, which will benefit a charismatic populist like Lapid.  So even the political outsiders may benefit from this delay.
  • Even the Palestinians are winners here, but only if their leaders take seriously a real window of possibility for progress in forging at least an interim deal, something Mofaz is serious about.
  • When it comes to the Middle East, optimists beware.  A unity government will not make apartments more affordable for the average Israeli, or suddenly liberate the Women of the Wall from scorn and harrassment.  But the winds of change blowing across the region are blowing in Israel as well, and this unprecedented unity coalition has a chance to take a socially, religiously and politically gridlocked nation and "unstick" it.

    And that's perfect, because tomorrow night is Lag B'Omer, which commemorates lots of things, including a break in the plague that claimed the lives of thousands of students of Rabbi Akiba (see a web journey explaining this incredibly complex holiday).  Some say that plague was actually the Romans, who persecuted Jews ruthlessly at the time, so the break wasn't so much like the flushing of a fever but rather like the snapping of siege. 

    Those students had not known a day without Roman oppression.  We've never known a day without gridlock.  On the 33rd day of the Omer, they, and we, wake up to a world of new possibilities.

    It makes an American wonder whose system needs more fixing.  
    "Mommy, Izzy has a unity government.  Can we have a unity government too?"

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