The reconstitution of Likud

Israel Hayom | The reconstitution of Likud.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece is reprinted with permission and can be found on Abrams’ blog “Pressure Points” here.

On Aug. 7, 2005, Israel’s finance minister resigned his post in protest of then Prime Minister Sharon’s plan to remove settlements and military bases from the Gaza Strip. That finance minister was Benjamin Netanyahu. The Likud party was split in two by Sharon’s “Disengagement” plan, and Sharon quit Likud and formed the Kadima party in November of that year. With him to Kadima came former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, while Netanyahu stayed in Likud and became its leader once again.

Today Mofaz and Netanyahu, and more broadly Kadima and Likud, find themselves reunited in a coalition government. This reflects, in part, the weakness of Kadima: Mofaz recently won a primary against Tzipi Livni for party leadership, and polls showed that Kadima would slip very badly if an election were held, as had been planned, in the coming months. (The date had practically been set for Sept. 4.) For Mofaz that would be a disastrous start to his period of leadership, and for many Kadima MKs it would mean the end of their political careers. So Mofaz took Kadima into partnership with Likud, even though he did not receive either of the two major security portfolios: defense minister or foreign minister. What did he receive?

Perhaps maneuvering out of a disastrous election was enough. Mofaz will be a deputy prime minister, but such a post can mean great or very little influence. Perhaps he has been promised the Foreign Ministry if the current incumbent, Avigdor Lieberman, is eventually indicted by the police on allegations of corruption. Perhaps he will have real influence on policy toward Iran and toward the Palestinians, although there are many important domestic issues facing the government now — not least of which are the budget and the “Tal Law” regulating the ability of ultra-Orthodox students to escape military service.

The election will be held next year, presumably near the latest date the Israeli constitution makes possible: October, right after the Jewish holiday period that year. Mofaz has made a wager here that Kadima’s fortunes are at their lowest ebb today and that the party would not survive a bad defeat in elections this September, but can recover while in government and do better one year later. He may be wrong; it may be that this move revives the Labor party as the left-of-center opposition and crushes Kadima next year between Labor and Likud. Netanyahu has also made a wager, for polls showed him with a clear victory this year — but October 2013 is very far away.

While this coalition was formed for domestic political reasons, it may have an impact on Israeli security policy. Mofaz has been more flexible on resolving the dispute with the Palestinians, presenting his own plan in 2009, and may push the government to do more. He has been cautious in some statements on striking Iran, less so in others. In April he spoke against exactly the sort of deal that seems to be most likely in the current negotiations:

“It would be too hard to monitor [a civilian program],” Mofaz said. “Iran has military ambitions and abilities, so we cannot close our eyes. Allowing Iran to obtain even a civilian nuclear capability would change the balance of power in the Middle East. America realizes why Israel cannot accept this.” Mofaz said he believed the Obama administration was committed to stopping the Iranian nuclear program. Calling for an intensification of U.S.-led sanctions against Iran, he said the military option was the last option but that Israel must be ready for it. “If we see Iran getting closer to a military nuclear capability and the US acting against its own interest and allowing a sword on our neck, I will be the first to support Israel taking action,” he said. “On this there would be no coalition and opposition. But the sword is not there yet.”

Should Netanyahu decide the sword is there, having Kadima and Mofaz — a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and defense minister — on his side will be of great value.

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