I was as surprised as anyone to wake up this morning and discover that Kadima had agreed to enter Netanyahu’s governing coalition. This, in case you missed it, broadens its reach to 94 of the Knesset’s 120 legislators. This certainly does not signal Bibi’s transformation into Nixon-in-China, but it is cause for a moment’s sighing in relief, if not quite celebration.
Kadima failed to form a government following* the last Israeli elections, there were, it seemed, three scenarios through which the inevitable Likud coalition would form: a Likud-Kadima-Labor centrist/unity coalition, a Likud-YB-Religious coalition (both the most right wing and fragile), or the variation on the former which occurred—the inclusion of Labor in the governing umbrella. To my centrist/center-left friends, some version of the first was the best-case; some version of the last (the middle was too unstable to truly fear) was the worst. What we have going forward is a version of the best that we could have hoped for once it became clear that Netanyahu would become Prime Minister.
The Likud-Kadima-YB government, is, more importantly, a secular one. Shas and United Torah are no longer—as they have been for a long time in Israeli politics—the kingmakers. This gives Netanyahu room to dispose of the Tal Law that currently exempts all yeshiva students from military service—in essence, exempting any haredi male who wishes from joining the IDF and facilitating their subsequent non-entry into the Israeli workforce.
The expiration of the Tal Law—and with it the departure of United Torah from the coalition; what Shas will do is less clear —will lead, in part, toward the second effect of this move: the coalition’s—and Likud’s—shift from the right-wing to the center-right. There is the obvious sense: regardless of what the haredi parties do, Netanyahu is now firmly in the center of his coalition (rather than—gasp!—toward the left of its center). But, as Aluf Benn notes in Ha’aretz,
Following the exit of several moderate politicians, the Likud has shifted into an extreme right-wing party in recent years, under the influence of Moshe Feiglin and his representatives at Likud’s offices. Their effect had neutralized any chance for a diplomatic progress with the Palestinians. The return of Mofaz, Ronny Bar-On, Meir Sheetrit and Tzchi Hanegbi will have a moderate effect on the party, positioning at Israeli’s central political bloc. The chances of a merger of this kind are now greater than ever, a result of a panic taking hold of Kadima’s members over the chill that will greet them outside if they try to run in a separate list again.
The formation of Kadima made sense when Ariel Sharon was its leader, but without him, its most lasting effect may have been pushing Likud to the right without significantly reducing its political clout. The re-incorporation of Kadima may, to some extent, be able to mitigate Likud’s rightward drift over the past half-decade. While there’s no sense in pretending that this has “renewed” the Israeli left, it has given Israel a clearer, surer opposition in Labor than Kadima ever proved capable of offering. If all these are the case, a secular, center-right coalition may be—if we can, for half a sentence, bracket the questions of Iran andPalestine—precisely whatIsrael needs for a healthier discussion of its domestic affairs. Remove those brackets, as we must, and the picture becomes much muddier. But I’ll allow myself a sigh of relief, and a few minutes, even, of hope.
I still believe that Nixon is the best and clearest point of comparison when discussing Netanyahu. Nixon, at least, had the courage to go to China—and was still undone by his personal and political flaws. The question, as always, is to what extent will Netanyahu face the difficult questions of his tenure—whatever his answer—and to what extent will he be seduced by the allure of his own political talent? The failure to avoid the latter was Nixon’s undoing, and would have been even without the Watergate break-in.
As with all things in life, I advise everyone to remain pessimistic but hopeful.
*EDIT 5/9: As commenter David H. points out below, Likud, not Kadima, was given the first shot at forming a coalition following the 2009 elections. Livni had failed to re-form a governing coalition following its collapse/Olmert’s resignation as head of Kadima, triggering the elections.