This was the shortest election season in the history of Israel. Last week Monday, facing a destabilized government, and the failure to come to an agreement with the Ultra-Orthodox parties and coalition partners on a national service bill that would replace the now defunct Tal Law, Prime Minister Netanyahu called for early Knesset elections, in order to restore some semblance of order.
In a speech at the Likud convention in Tel Aviv, on Sunday, Netanyahu proposed a short four month election campaign, in order to restore the government’s stability.
“For dozens of years the government was not very stable,” Netanyahu said. “With the start of the fourth year of this government, coalition stability has begun to crumble, opening the door to blackmail and populism,” he said. “I will not lend a hand to an election campaign of a year and a half that would destabilize the government. I prefer short elections of four months that could quickly bring back the stability to the political system.”
Riding high in the polls, the call for early elections was viewed by some as an attempt on Netanyahu’s part to take advantage of his popularity and receive a renewed mandate.
Kadima, the main opposition party which has 28 seats in the current Knesset, fearful of losing its relevance in a future government, was less than delighted to go to elections now. Polls indicate the potential for substantial gains for Likud, suggesting a loss by the opposition of at least 18 seats, while Netanyahu would be given the opportunity to choose from various options in forming a new government, without being threatened by the left or of the right.
After voting in the first reading for a Knesset dissolution bill, and moments before the vote on the second and third reading was to be taking place in the late hours of Monday, PM Netanyahu unexpectedly called the Knesset speaker with a request to suspend the vote on the bill, since the prime minister and opposition leader, Shaul Mofaz agreed to form a national unity government that will last until November 2013.
According to the agreement, that was both approved by the Likud and Kadima factions, Mofaz will serve as Vice Premier, a cabinet member and act as a diplomatic envoy. Additionally, the two parties agreed on proposing an alternative for the Tal Law on national service, passing legislation on electoral reform, and passing the biannual budget.
The historic move would grant the coalition an overwhelming majority in the Knesset. In addition to the current coalition that counts 67 seats out of 120 (Likud 17, Lieberman 15, Shas 11, Barak, 5, UTJ 5, Jewish Home 3), with a majority of 61 needed to survive a no-confidence motion or form a government, Kadima’s 28 seats would bring the coalition to a record high 94 seat majority.
Even if Shas (11) and UTJ-Agudath Yisrael (5) decide to leave the government at any given time, by opposing any compromise on the Tal-law alternative bill, Netanyahu would still have a 79 seat majority to survive a full term.
The unity government also gives Netanyahu an opportunity to shift focus on socioeconomic issues, passing necessary government reforms and strengthening the prime minister’s stand on the key issue that PM Netanyahu believes is the reason for getting to power in the first place - dealing with the threat of Iran.
While some pundits and politicians will call this a brilliant move or stinky politics in reverse, Netanyahu has benefitted from the move by getting more or less the government he was expected to form, without going to elections, saving the state of Israel 800 Million NIS, and not paying a political price for bringing in Kadima.
A Channel 2/Millward Brown poll released on Tuesday, shows 39 percent of the Israeli public backing this political move, forming a national unity government with Kadima, 34 percent oppose, and 27% have no opinion.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, on Tuesday, Netanyahu said: “I was ready to go to elections. But when I learned that a very broad government can be established, the broadest in Israel’s history I realized that stability can be restored. That is why I have decided to form a broad national unity government.”