Netanyahu Has Little to Fear From Kadima’s Desertion

Give Netanyahu a cubic centimeter of wiggle room, and he will carve out a square mile of new apartments beyond the Green Line.

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

Shaul Mofaz, leader of Kadima.

Shaul Mofaz, leader of Kadima.

On Tuesday evening, Shaul Mofaz, leader of the Israeli political party Kadima, convened his fellow parliamentarians and offered them his rationale for leaving the 94-seat Knesset majority they’d made possible in May when they joined PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition. In doing so, he has largely sealed Kadima’s fate as a political force in Israel.

According to The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov, Mofaz asserted in his defense that “there are red lines I can’t cross” and that “there’s a difference between compromising and just paying lip service.”

Mofaz’s red lines are the military service exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Palestinians. He supports a much more expansive draft program than Netanyahu. Netanyahu prefers a much more gradual course and maintaining a greater percentage of exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men. July 31 is the deadline Israel’s High Court set for a reform of the Tal Law, which since 2002 has governed the current exemptions policy. If no compromise is reached, the IDF could begin drafting 18-year-olds in these demographic groups without having the civilian government set quotas for exemptions, and non-military alternative “national service” options that would primarily granted to Israeli Arabs). Only around 1/5 of ultra-Orthodox draft-eligible males currently serve in the IDF.

The main question to ask now is not what the compromise will look like, but “when’s the next election?” Whenever it is, it will not be a good one for Kadima.

Kadima’s eleventh-hour deal with Likud back in May postponed emergency elections originally set for September 4. Polls showed that Kadima was likely to lose close to 2/3 of its Knesset seats in the September 4 contest, while Likud would gain seats. Mofaz, in seeking to avert that disaster, broke an earlier promise to never join in a coalition with Netanyahu. Kadima, not Likud, was negotiating from a position of weakness then.

It would constitute a Herculean feat for Kadima to now dispel the scorn the Israeli right is heaping on it. The “left’s” enthusiasm for Mofaz is not exactly a tangible quantity. The scorn felt in the country towards his party is rather aptly exemplified by an Israel Hayom political cartoon portraying Mofaz as a weather vane. Mofaz plainly failed to deliver — he says he’s quitting because there is no compromise on the draft and some of his party’s backbenchers are yelling that he gave up too easily on it.

Kadima’s withdrawal over the Tal Law is the most visible — and risible — issue that it’s stepping out on now. Ironically, on Monday, former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz stepped out on Kadima because it didn’t go as far he wanted it to on the law — Halutz wants universal conscription for all, starting at age 1, and Kadima was willing to accept a compromise for gradual enlistment over the next 4 years — which again makes one wonder as to what Kadima’s fate will be in the next election.

Mofaz’s defection was apparently triggered by Netanyahu’s dissolution of a committee that would have presented a compromise package on the draft. The Times of Israel reports:

Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu had adopted a proposal put forward by Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud), which called for ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs to join the army or perform national service, such as serving in police or fire units, by ages 23 to 26. The motion also included incentives for those who enlist at a younger age.

Mofaz blasted the proposal as “disproportionate and contrary to the High Court ruling,” which stated that the burden of serving should be shared by all citizens. He also said it did not meet the principle of equality laid out by the Plesner Committee.

A full-scale draft is the preference of many members of Kadima, and it is preference of the secular-nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu as well, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, is Netanyahu’s Foreign Minister.

Yisrael Beiteinu’s national-secular members of Knesset (KMs) have little patience for exemptions to the Palestinian Israelis or the ultra-Orthodox, or arguments from those on the Israeli left castigating the whole exercise as political theater. Kadima, at odds with the national-religious establishment on much else, found a natural ally in Yisrael Beiteinu this time since they do not support special privileges for the ultra-Orthodox or Israeli Arabs. Lieberman’s party is Likud’s main ally right now, and he opposes further Tal Law extensions in favor of a full-scale national draft — though his bill to effect this was recently voted down.

That said, it is Likud that has the most to gain from the coming deadline dance over the Tal Law, primarily because its opponents are so politically weak.

This is important to note because the law is one of the most controversial provisions of Israeli life, and one that it is easy to rally support for or against in Israeli domestic politics without having to have an uncomfortable discussion about the Occupation. As Karl Vick notes, “it leaves him [Netanyahu] weaker and more vulnerable to the passions of the factions who remain — nationalists on one hand, and religious parties on the other”.

And this is all true, but only to a certain extent. Netanyahu has to prefer the 19 votes of the national-religious bloc to Kadima’s seats because those are the people he broke bread with in 2009, and there is also the matter of the settler bloc in his own party. The dissent of this bloc’s leader, Moshe Felgin, over the Tal Law handling is much less threatening to Netanyahu than Lieberman’s is.

Kadima is setting out to make the universal draft the issue for the next election — though if that’s your only issue, why vote for the flip-flopping Kadima when you can vote for Yisrael Beiteinu, which actually has weight because of their staying in the government? Netanyahu might indeed be worried over what will happen before July 31, since he has relied so much on, perhaps sometimes without even quite realizing it, the domestic breathing room provided by his fractious partners to undertake his foreign policy program. This breathing room has helped him avoid a serious political confrontation in the Knesset over his Iran policy (this is less so with respect to the Occupation since few on any side of the political spectrum question its sustainability).

Without that breathing room, Netanyahu really does run risks going into the next elections because an issue as divisive as the Tal Law has the potential to explode Israeli society.

But it is a slim risk for Netanyahu, who is predicted to easily win the premier-ship again in 2013. His response to the current dust-up will likely compare to how he dealt with a “settlement crisis” just as his grand coalition formed. +972′s Noam Sheizaf had theorized that Likud’s incentive to get the coalition formed was to head off a serious confrontation over the legality of multiple apartments in the Beit El settlement’s Ulpana neighborhood: “By postponing the elections, the prime minister has bought himself some time to deal with the crisis,” though Sheizaf also noted that the settlers were politically weak.

But that weakness, Sheizaf concluded, was belied by the “political theater” that the bigger players put on. A compromise on Ulpana, was, in fact, accomplished: the apartments were physically relocated and then the government promised to undertake massively expanded construction, as it so often does when an evacuation occurs. An incident that could have prompted a wider debate of the Occupation was headed off by last-minute compromises. Gone was any talk about the peace process that some hoped Mofaz would re-introduce.

By any measure, Netanyahu won the debate — such as it was — over Ulpana, and he did so not by using Kadima’s Knesset votes. They simply sat in his tent as his partisans worked out a solution with the furthest-right whose expansionism he sympathizes with. How that episode played out is indicative of Netanyahu’s strength as a politician. Give him a cubic centimeter of wiggle room in committee, and he will carve out a square mile of new apartments beyond the Green Line because there is really no strong, organized constituency behind Kadima to match Likud’s appeal.

Even as Lieberman thunders on about the universal draft, the Foreign Minister is surely mindful that had those September 4 elections been held, Likud, not his party, stood to gain the most. And for what it’s worth given Mofaz’s recent performance, Lieberman did announce he would not leave the coalition. It is much easier for Lieberman and Netanyahu to stay together than it is for either man to go over to the smaller national-religious parties like Shas or seek accommodation with the Labor Party.

Harkov also reported that 3 members of Kadima formally voted to remain in the coalition, and that seven more might prefer to jump ship. Not all that many, but bear in mind that Kadima was expected to hold onto only 10, perhaps 12 seats in the September 4 election, out of the 28 it held in May when it entered the coalition.

Netanyahu may indeed be scared of the ultra-Orthodox, but he’s not afraid of Kadima. A few defections on, and who at all will be afraid of Shaul Mofaz in the next general election?