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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Israeli Political Shocker May Change Country Forever



Over the weekend we learned that Israeli elections were scheduled for September 4th because of the collapse of Netanyahu's coalition. Late last night the Israeli Prime Minster and the head of the leading opposition party Kadima, have reached an agreement to bring the opposition party into the coalition forestalling the election till the official end of its term on October 22, 2013. 

The inclusion of Kadima, the party formed by former Prime Minster Ariel Sharon brings the ruling coalition to 94 seats, almost 80% of the 120 seat Knesset--the largest coalition in Israeli history.  This new government may add some stability to the disjointed Israeli system.

The great thing about Israel's political system is its inclusiveness. The 120 seats in the Knesset are handed out proportionally to each party that receives at least 2% of the vote.  The lousy thing about the Israeli political system is its inclusiveness.

There has never been a majority government in the Israeli Knesset, which means to form a coalition the lead party has to make concessions to tiny parties many of which concentrate on a single-issue.  This slows down the ability of any government to do what is necessary to move the country ahead.  On most issues the differences are not that big, but more than once a tiny party has brought down a coalition.

The rules of the Israeli parliamentary system are not set in a constitution but by precedent, and law set by the Knesset. A coalition this big, containing all the major parties has the political legitimacy change Israeli politics to weaken the influence of these very small parties.  Israel will never trim down to a two party system like the US, but today there are 13 parties in Knesset...that will change.

Elections were called because of a no confidence vote caused by the Tal Law, which allows Haredim (commonly described as Ultra-Orthodox) to permanently defer military service. The law expires in August and the negotiations to replace it has been very contentious. The religious parties want the law renewed as is, and the more secular parties want it changed or eliminated completely.  With the large coalition's backing a new can be negotiated making both sides happy(er).

Under the agreement, Kadima chair Shaul Mofaz becomes deputy prime minister, standing in for  Netanyahu when he is abroad and joining all closed sessions of the cabinet that “deal with security, diplomatic, economic and social issues."

The new coalition has announced four priorities:
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Kadima chair Shaul Mofaz highlighted four priorities for their unity government on Tuesday, emphasizing with each the importance of acting "responsibly."

The first priority will be "replacing the Tal Law with a historic, just and equal solution" to integrating the haredim into army service. The second is to develop a "responsible budget addressing security, economic and social issues."

The third is "changing the structure of government" so that government's serving out their terms will be "the rule and not the exception." The fourth is to "move forward responsibly in the peace process."
What will be the effect of the new coalition on the peace process? Not much. On one hand if a deal is negotiated by this government it will be much easier to pass it in Knesset. But it still takes two to tango, and the Palestinian Authority has shown no interest in dancing. All the major parties are pretty close on how to negotiate with the Palestinians and the importance of security, so don't expect changes in position.

The most pressing security issue in Israel is Iran. Here too there is little difference between the major parties. While some people believe that a broader coalition may make Israel more likely to attack Iran, however with a second IDF Chief of Staff as part of the inner cabinet, it may become less likely.  Military leaders such as Defense Minster Ehud Barack and Shaul Mofaz understand the horrors of war and will not support an attack without a total understanding of the consequences.

In the end the political shocker announced by Bibi Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz last night will change Israeli politics forever...in a good way.  It will result in stronger coalitions with greater legitimacy to deal with the major problems of the day, and unity on security issues that will allow the Jewish State to stand up to unfair pressure should (God-forbid) Barack Obama be re-elected.  Israel will still have a broad base of political parties in the Knesset, but governments will be able to move ahead unencumbered by small and sometimes single-issue parties.