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Netanyahu power play could remake Mideast

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem December 25, 2011.

REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool/REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool

In the name of stability, Benjamin Netanyahu has made himself the most powerful Prime Minister in Israeli history – 94 of the Knesset's 120 members are swearing loyalty to him – and with only 26 members in the parliamentary opposition, Mr. Netanyahu can govern any way he wishes, including launching a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities or even shaping a peace with the Palestinians.

While some Israelis, such as Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, a member of Mr. Netanyahu's own Likud party, worry that the imbalance between government and opposition risks the degeneration of the parliamentary system, most Israelis simply marvelled Tuesday at the arrangement arrived at in the early hours of the morning that has dramatically rearranged the country's politics.

Just two days after he announced he was calling for elections to be held in September, 13 months before the end of his electoral mandate, Mr. Netanyahu decided to accept a plan put forward by Defence Minister Ehud Barak and welcomed into his right-of-centre government Shaul Mofaz, the newly elected leader of Kadima and his party's 28 seats.

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Added to Likud's 27 seats, and the 39 other members of the coalition that have governed the country since 2009, Mr. Netanyahu couldn't suppress a Cheshire Cat-like smile as he announced his 94-seat supermajority.

"The man has given himself enormous power," said Dani Dayan, head of the Israeli settlers organization Yesha. Mr. Dayan was speaking at an emergency meeting of settler leaders Tuesday evening in Beit El, a settlement north of Jerusalem. "It remains to be seen how he wields this power," he said, concerned that the Prime Minister may turn his back on them.

It is believed that Mr. Netanyahu was shaken Sunday night by the right-wing resistance he encountered at a Likud party conference. Opponents, such as Danny Danon, a staunchly pro-settlement Likud member of Knesset, had refused the Prime Minister's request to chair the party convention and heckled the leader throughout his speech.

Mr. Netanyahu apparently left the convention hall and immediately contacted Mr. Barak, as well as a former chief of staff in the Prime Minister's Office, and directed them to negotiate with Mr. Mofaz.

The result was a 13-point document that set out the terms under which Mr. Mofaz and Kadima would become part of the government.

Among other things, Mr. Mofaz will serve as the deputy prime minister in the government and will stand in for Mr. Netanyahu whenever the Prime Minister is absent. He will also be a member of the powerful security cabinet.

As well, the government will proceed quickly with abolishing the practice of giving military exemptions to tens of thousands of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men; with addressing the age-old issue of changing the electoral system to make it more difficult for tiny parties to be elected; and even with reopening the peace process with Palestinian leaders.

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"In effect," said Hanan Crystal, a political commentator for Israel Radio, "[Mr. Netanyahu]is telling [Mr.]Danon and others: 'The Likud is not a nationalist-religious party, it's a centralist-liberal party.'"

With such a wide base and so many parties to the left of him as well as to the right, Mr. Netanyahu can govern without fear that a walkout by any of the parties on either side would topple his government.

When it comes to Iran, the record shows that Mr. Mofaz has been hawkish against Iran when he served in the governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, and somewhat dovish when he's been in opposition.

Most recently, Mr. Mofaz, who was born in Tehran, said Israel should not act alone in any action against Iran.

As a former chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, and a former minister of defence under Mr. Sharon, the Kadima leader has substantial credibility in this matter.

With him in the coalition, the Prime Minister has several options. If he wants to attack Iran, Mr. Mofaz may be persuaded to support him; if he doesn't want to attack, then Mr. Mofaz may serve as a fig leaf, explaining why Mr. Netanyahu was held back from attacking by his deputy prime minister.

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Right-wing elements of the Likud party were highly critical of the move to broaden the government.

Mr. Danon said he voted against the arrangement in the party caucus meeting that took place around 2:30 Tuesday morning. "This will perpetuate keeping [Ehud]Barak as Defence Minister for another year and a half, and will bring in a left-wing party called Kadima into the government," Mr. Danon said. "This will be a blow to settlement; this will hurt the Likud's values and will hurt the Israeli public that elected the Likud to lead the State of Israel."

For his part, even the dour Mr. Mofaz couldn't keep from smiling. With this one stroke he had saved the Kadima party that was facing a stunningly large loss of seats in any election this year, and catapulted himself to the front bench of government.

Mr. Barak, an apparent broker in the coalition deal, is also happy. Having split from the Labour party last year in order to remain in the government, his five-member Independence party was facing annihilation in a September election. This way, Mr. Barak lives to fight another year as Defence Minister.

The big losers in this unexpected development must certainly include the recently elected Labour party leader Shelly Yachimovich, who is stuck now with only eight members of Knesset instead of the 18 to 19 that opinion polls suggested she'd capture in an election this year.

Ms. Yachimovich, an assertive and articulate former journalist who had revived Labour after Mr. Barak's departure, denounced the accord.

"This is a pact of cowards and the most contemptible and preposterous zigzag in Israel's political history," she said "Nobody will ever forget this shady deal, and unfortunately, this will cause profound damage to public faith in politics."

Another apparently big loser is Yair Lapid, the entertaining former television news anchor who only last month announced the formation of a new political party that, polls indicated, could win some 11 seats were an election to take place soon.

Mr. Lapid described the unity government as precisely the kind of detestable and ugly politics he sought to eliminate. This repulsive political alliance will bury all of its participants under it, he said.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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