About two weeks ago I was getting ready to do a post about the upcoming early Israeli elections in Israel. All the pundits had decided that Netanyahu would go to the polls in September--some even mentioning September 4 as the date. Several even attributed this to a decision by Bibi and Barak to strike Iran before the American election in early November. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the election...As a bill to dissolve the Knesset and set a date for new elections had passed its first of three mandatory "readings" or votes in the Knesset, things suddenly began to slow down as Kadima members began to delay. Behind the scenes new Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz was negotiating a new coalition government with Netanyahu that would delay elections possibly until they were required by law in mid-2013. The new government was announced as ostensibly being motivated by the need to pass a new law on national service for the ultra-Orthodox and by the need to pass electoral reform. But what really motivated the two main protagonists and what are the chances of their proclaimed agenda being enacted?
Mofaz and Kadima had the most to lose from early elections. Polls showed Kadima dropping from 28 seats in this Knesset to the upper single or lower double digits in the next. Kadima would finally be going through the process that past Center parties (Rafi, Dash, Center Party) had gone through in their first three years. This gives Kadima some 15 months to attempt to build up a record with which it can face the electorate, something it failed to do under Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni.
Netanyahu can do what he is best at--playing for time. He can continue to threaten an Israeli attack on Iran thereby ensuring that the P5+1 powers engaged in nuclear negotiations with Iran don't give in easily. He can also hope that Romney is elected president in place of Obama, thereby giving Israel cover to continue settling the West Bank while avoiding any serious negotiations with the Palestinians. And he can continue to create more facts on the ground in the West Bank. Like with the rabbi who promised the local nobleman that he would teach his dog to talk in a year, he will play for time. As the rabbi explained to his wife, "The nobleman can die, the dog can die, I can die or maybe the dog can learn to talk."
Since 1984 governments of national unity have become a regular feature of the Israeli political landscape. The first national unity government came to power in June 1967 to give backing for Israel's preemptive attack against the threatening Arab powers. That government collapsed in early 1970 when Gahal (the forerunner of the Likud) withdrew over Israeli acceptance of UNSC Resolution 242 as the basis for negotiations with Egypt and Jordan. In 1984 the next national unity government was created when neither Labor nor the Likud had enough strength to form a government on its own. It featured a rotating premiership and an inner cabinet made up of equal numbers of Labor and Likud ministers. In November 1988 it was replaced by another national unity government without a rotating premiership and with Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir as prime minister. It lasted until March 1990. National unity governments returned in the post-Oslo period to allow Israel to cope with the al-Aksa Intifada.
None of these national unity governments enacted serious electoral reform or a solution to draft dodging by the ultra-Orthodox. Because the latter is a popular cause with secular Israelis, the two main parties may be able to overcome their mutual fear of retaliation by the religious parties and enact some sort of non-military national service scheme for the ultra-Orthodox in which they would mostly serve their own communities. As it is now most ultra-Orthodox males live a subsidized existence of poverty off of the earnings of their wives and the funds that their parties manage to extort from secular taxes as part of the coalition bargaining process.
The Likud is actually quite comfortable with the present electoral-party system as it gives an excuse for Likud prime ministers to avoid making territorial and other concessions to the Palestinians. They can then complain of coalition pressures and blame the religious and Far Right parties. Only the Left is really interested in changing the electoral system, which could be done by either increasing the entry barrier for parties to the Knesset from the present two percent (up from one percent at independence) to four or five percent or by replacing Israel's own national constituency with several smaller regional constituencies. Political scientists can quite easily design a system that will eliminate the negative features of the present system. But Israeli politicians are not political scientists--they are short-sighted hacks interested in their personal interests, then in their parties interests, and lastly--only slightly--in the national interest.