What Israel’s Unity Government Means for a Strike on Iran

The deal Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party struck last night may be the slickest politicking in recent memory. After threatening to hold early elections, Netanyahu formed a unity government with the main opposition party, Kadima, that has to a certain extent neutralized opposition to his rule in the Knesset. Media reports mostly place the key to this deal on a promise from Netanyahu and Likud to acquiesce in Kadima’s proposal for military deferment for ultra-Orthodox Jews. Less is being said about what this would mean for a possible Israeli military strike on Iran.

It was widely believed that Netanyahu called for early elections because he had more a chance of winning now than later and would then have the freedom to maintain hawkish policies toward Iran, possibly a military strike, at a point when Obama would be paralyzed in his own reelection campaign. The reason this deal for a unity government is “slick,” as I say, is that Netanyahu seems to have pulled a fast one on Kadima, a party that has been critical of his hawkishness on Iran.

The deal gives Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz a spot as deputy prime minister. Mofaz, who happens to be Iranian-born, has voiced staunch objections to a unilateral strike on Iran and criticized Likud for avoiding peace talks with the Palestinians. But as Harriet Sherwood at the Guardian explains, this doesn’t mean an attack on Iran is less likely:

As a former chief of staff, Mofaz’s views inside the unofficial core group of ministers that takes key decisions – the Forum of Eight, now the Forum of Nine – will carry some weight. But, according to analyst Meir Javedanfar, he is unlikely to be a restraining factor on Netanyahu and Barak. “His influence will be limited. His hands will be tied because of the position of weakness from which he entered the coalition,” he said.

According to Anshel Pfeffer, who writes a blog on Israel-Iran for Haaretz, the move has also “taken the most senior security figure in the opposition out of the opposition and into the government”.

Mofaz served as military chief of staff under governments led by both Netanyahu and Barak. “He has a history of taking orders from Bibi [Netanyahu] and Barak,” says Pfeffer. “I think he will be very much in line [on Iran]. It will be a triumvirate.”

An analysis by IHS Jane’s suggests that Mofaz’s presence in the government will not alter the prospects of military action. “Whether a condition of the agreement between Kadima and Likud involves Mofaz assuming a position on Iran closer to Netanyahu remains to be seen, but there will be many observers who will view the reconstituted government as preparing the ground for an attack on Iran – a decision that some members of the government, including Netanyahu, think may need to be made in the second half of 2012,” it said.

Netanyahu seems to have promised Mofaz and Kadima some limited power in the new unity government, while also yielding to certain of Kadima’s domestic political demands, all while knowing that they would be outmatched on the Iran issue. Welcoming the main opposition party into the unity government essentially erases any harsh criticism Netanyahu would have faced if he does indeed decide to start an unprovoked war with Iran. To the public, it seems as if Netanyahu is giving into the objections to war on Iran by welcoming Kadima. But he knows Kadima’s objections to this are weakened by giving them more “power” in government.

Sherwood again:

National unity governments have usually been formed in Israel in times of crisis – “mainly under conditions of war”, said [Israeli political commentator Amit] Segal. “Many people will raise the question of whether Netanyahu, Barak and Mofaz have agreed on something much more significant than electoral reform or the enlistment of the ultra-orthodox.”

3 thoughts on “What Israel’s Unity Government Means for a Strike on Iran”

  1. I think the deal is less about marginalizing Kadima objections to a strike on Iran, than about avoiding an election before such a strike.

    If he buys time with this new coalition to attack Iran before being forced to hold elections, he can reasonably hope that wartime "don't change horses in midstream" politics will protect Likud's primacy after that attack, even if the particular coalition falls apart.

    On the other hand, if he's forced into elections BEFORE an attack on Iran, Likud might get its ass handed to it by an electorate that doesn't want to go to war in the first place.

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