Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June-July 2012, Pages 10, 41

Special Report

Israel's Back-Room Deal Strengthens an Authoritarian Trend

By Jonathan Cook

Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty ImagesIsraeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (l) gestures during a May 8 joint press conference with Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz announcing a new coalition government. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

Israelis barely had time to absorb the news that they were heading into a summer election when, on May 8, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pulled the rug from underneath the charade. Rancorous early electioneering had provided cover for a secret agreement between Netanyahu and the main opposition party, Kadima, to form a new, expanded coalition government.

Rather than facing the electorate in September, Netanyahu is expected to comfortably see out the remaining 18 months of his term of office. Not only that, but he will now have the backing of more than three-quarters of the 120-seat Israeli parliament, leading one commentator on May 8 to crown him the "king of Israel."

The announcement may have taken Israelis by surprise, but it fully accorded with the logic of an increasingly dysfunctional Israeli political culture.

Shaul Mofaz, who last month defeated Tzipi Livni to become the head of the centrist Kadima party, boasted afterward that he would topple Netanyahu's right-wing government by leading the mass social protests whose revival is expected in the summer.

Last year, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand an end to the rocketing cost of living, much of it caused by business cartels that were empowered by Netanyahu and his Likud party in privatization programs years ago.

But the reality was that Mofaz, a hawkish former army chief of staff who is seen as both lackluster and power-hungry as a politician, had no credibility with either the demonstrators or the wider electorate.

Kadima, which has remained ideologically close to the Likud, from which it split several years ago, is currently the largest faction in the parliament. But polls suggested Mofaz would lead it to electoral oblivion.

The deal will win him a temporary reprieve, with a seat in the security cabinet and a say in the biggest issues facing Israel: its dealings with Iran and the Palestinians. Over time, if his ratings fail to rise, Mofaz might consider returning the remnants of Kadima to the Likud fold.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has created a national unity government that more precisely reflects the majority mood: an unalloyed, aggressive and xenophobic right-wing consensus.

There was little need for Netanyahu to bring Kadima into the coalition. He was racing ahead in the polls, his popularity outstripping that of all the other major party leaders combined.

But there are advantages for Netanyahu in postponing an election he was expected to win. Not least, it gives him time to entrench moves towards authoritarianism. Netanyahu has been behind a series of measures to weaken the media, human rights groups and the courts. At the moment, his government is defying a series of Supreme Court rulings to dismantle several small Jewish settlements on Palestinian land that are illegal even under Israeli law.

An uninterrupted year and a half will allow him to further undermine these rival centers of power. One of the promises he and Mofaz made on May 8 was to overhaul the system of government.

In addition, the new coalition will face an all but non-existent parliamentary opposition: a shrivelled center-left of the Labor and Meretz parties, with only a handful of seats; a few ultranationalists who would be more trouble in government than Netanyahu needs; and the Arab parties, who are reviled by the Jewish public and politicians alike.

Labor's new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, was expected to partially revive the party's fortunes on the back of the protests and be joined in a potentially serious opposition by a new centrist party, headed by TV news anchor and heartthrob Yair Lapid. Now both are relegated to the political margins.

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, whom Netanyahu fears most as a challenger, has also been defanged. His current pivotal role in the coalition will be diminished by the presence of Kadima.

Another bonus for Netanyahu is that he is now better situated to see off the potentially dangerous early days of a Barack Obama second term, if the U.S. president is re-elected in November. Should Obama choose a fight on the Palestinian issue, he will be facing a prime minister whose position in Israel is unassailable.

What does all this mean for Iran and Palestinians?

Regarding the former, several commentators and some of his own ministers have argued that Netanyahu now has a free hand to attack Iran and destroy its alleged nuclear-weapons program.

More likely, the expanded coalition will make little difference to Israeli calculations over Iran. Mofaz, like most of the security establishment, opposes an attack. But Netanyahu will doubtless exploit his strengthened position to increase the rhetoric against Tehran and add to the pressure for action from the U.S. and Europe.

For Palestinians, it can only mean more of the same. Mofaz, who tried to distinguish himself by proposing a miserly peace plan that would see Palestinians holed up in a series of enclaves, lacks the political weight to deflect Netanyahu from his even more intransigent approach.

But at least for Netanyahu, the Kadima leader will cut a more presentable figure in Washington than Lieberman as an advocate for Israel's hard line.

The Israeli prime minister's May 8 claim that he was about to unveil a "responsible peace process" should be taken no more seriously than his professed commitment, abandoned the same day, to submit his government to the judgment of the Israeli electorate.  

Jonathan Cook is a journalist based in Nazareth and a winner of this year's Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. This article first appeared in the UAE's The National, May 9, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Jonathan Cook.