Israeli media crown Bibi 'king of Israel' for bringing opposition Kadima into the government
Put aside all the hue and cry - pro and con - over Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's surprise deal to form a unity government with the opposition Kadima party and to defer elections until late 2013. And then examine why it happened and what it portends.
Netanyahu was leading a center-right coalition for the last three years that remained remarkably stable -- until fairly recently when it became apparent that something had to be done about the Tal Law, which exempts orthodox youth from military service. The exemption statute is due to expire in August and Israel's Supreme Court has struck it down.
What to put in its place? Religious parties in Bibi's coalition were girding for a fight against any mandatory conscription while other coalition partners were clamoring for equal national service -- military or otherwise - without any exceptions. Netanyahu himself acknowledged the growing cracks within the government. At first, he aimed for advancing elections to early September of this year, but then reversed himself when Shaul Mofaz, the opposition Kadima leader, agreed to join Bibi's coalition and give it rock-solid stability with more than 90 parliamentary seats out of 120.
Mofaz had vowed never to make such a move when he beat Tzipi Livni, Kadima's former head, for the party's leadership. But he also realized that the centrist Kadima party was shrinking at an alarming rate. Had the elections been held this year, polls indicated that Kadmina, with 28 current Knesset seats the largest parliamentary party, would drop to fourth place with only 12 or 13 seats.
By entering a unity government, Kadima got a lifeline to preserve its current 28 seats for more than a year -- a breathing spell that allows Mofaz to do some rebuilding.
For Bibi, a unity government was a marriage made in political heaven. With Kadima aboard, he hugely expanded his maneuvering room to pursues a more centrist course in dealing with some form of national service for orthodox youths and for meeting popular demands to reverse a growing divide between well-off and poor Israelis. On the diplomatic front, Mofaz is due to take charge of dealing with the Palestinians, while Bibi navigates treacherous waters with Iran's nuclear program and often shaky relations with the Obama administration. The prime minister now can meet these security/diplomatic challenges with both Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff and former defense minister, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak at his side. A heavyweight team is now in charge.
Predictably, formation of a unity government literally in the middle of the night has prompted furious outcries by those left out in the cold - the Labor Party, which now will move into the prime opposition slot, and the far-left Meretz party.
But in Israel's raucous media, Bibi already has been crowned "king of Israel." No prime minister in recent memory has fielded such a potent coalaition. Netanyahu, however, knows that, while Israel now has the most stable government in modern times, there still will be challenges aplenty in coping with daunting domestic and foreign issues.
The prime minister may be reveling in his dramatic coup for more power. But he's also sufficiently realistic to know that he's no exception to the classic cautionary warning -- uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers