x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

A 'coalition of war' in Israel is just more business as usual

While Mr Netanyahu can no longer use the old excuse that he does not have the coalition to make peace, his recent political manoeuvres are based on a wily promotion of paralysis to avoid achieving it at all costs.

Benjamin Netanyahu, ever the master of political manoeuvres, has done it again. Last week, just before the Israeli parliament was about to ratify a call for new elections, the Kadima Party announced that it had completed negotiations with the prime minister and would join the government, creating Israel's largest governing coalition in its history (including 94 of 120 members of the Knesset).

The announcement sent shock waves throughout the region and in the US, with no shortage of speculation about what the sudden move meant.

In the days that followed, the views of Arab, Israeli and American commentators attempted to make sense of this new development. Many Arab commentators predictably saw this new Israeli "unity" as a danger, and a harbinger of a regional war. And they didn't mince words. Seeing a precedent in the Israeli coalition government that was formed before the 1967 war, one Arab analyst wrote "this is a war coalition", claiming that the target would be Iran or Lebanon.

The US press, also delusional when it comes to all things Israel, for the most part saw this broader Israeli government as a positive development. Liberals moralised that with an expanded mandate, Mr Netanyahu should now be in a position to move confidently towards a peace settlement with the Palestinians. "Under Netanyahu, Israel is stronger than ever" ran the refrain.

This echoed the somewhat subtle chiding of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who reportedly suggested that Mr Netanyahu could no longer claim that he would lose his governing coalition if he made peace. He is now in a political position that gives him the space at least to help to strengthen the Palestinian Authority.

American neoconservatives, on the other hand, shared the general Arab view on Mr Netanyahu's move, but with a twist. While Arab writers dreaded a war, US hawks appeared to eagerly anticipate it.

Most interesting and sanguine were the Israeli commentators who saw the manoeuvres of both Mr Netanyahu and his new "partner", Shaul Mofaz, the relatively new leader of Kadima, as signs of weakness rather than strength. This led many Israeli commentators to conclude that, far from setting the stage for decisive action, this new government was doomed to paralysis.

Mr Netanyahu is facing two immediate internal challenges that were threatening his rightist coalition. Within a few weeks, the government must act on two separate court decisions. One decision ruled that the law exempting ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis from military service was unconstitutional; and the other ruling ordered the government to evacuate an illegal settlement built on Palestinian-owned land north of Ramallah by the beginning of July.

Taking action on one or both of these rulings would have caused a rupture in the previous coalition and caused some members to bolt. Meanwhile, the third-largest group in the government, the Russian-immigrant based nationalist party, Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, had threatened to leave if the government failed to enforce the court order on ultra-Orthodox military service. All of these factors had Mr Netanyahu in a bind.

By broadening the base of his coalition, Mr Netanyahu has negated the leverage these groups held in their threats to withdraw support - since they no longer have the ability to topple the government. His motives, it appears, were more about survival than policy. So rather than lead by taking decisive action, Mr Netanyahu has accepted the lifeline offered by Mr Mofaz and can continue to govern by playing one group against another.

The leader of Kadima appeared to be similarly motivated by political survival. In March, Mr Mofaz won the contest to lead the party, which was founded in 2005 based on the personal aspirations and so-called charisma of Ariel Sharon, but he has seen his fortunes dramatically fade. Most recent polls show that in new elections, Kadima would win a mere 10 seats in the Knesset, down from the party's current 28.

Entering into a coalition with a man that he recently called a liar, Mr Mofaz appeared to be making a safer bet than facing humiliation at the polls.

Mrs Clinton is right: the game is up. Mr Netanyahu can no longer use the lame excuse he has relied on for years. He has, if he wishes, the numbers within, and outside his coalition, to make peace. But sadly, the Israeli commentators who know him best also have it right: his political manoeuvres are based on a wily promotion of paralysis to avoid peace at all cost.

The best evidence of this strategy is that his response to the court decision to evacuate the illegal settlement was to propose new legislation to "legalise" what is illegal. No one should be holding their breath expecting big things, either bad or good, from this big new government. That was not what brought the coalition into being. Expect, instead, business as usual.

And so after all the drama of the past week, the nervous speculation and excited expectation (depending on the lens through which events were viewed), little has changed for better or worse. As my friend MJ Rosenberg wrote in the Huffington Post, it was all "much ado about nothing".


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa