Opinion: United They Move?

The political earthquake that shook Jerusalem this week and resulted in a massive unity government in Israel will doubtless be felt in other parts of the region. That’s because for all the talk about historical legislation being easier to pass with a national consensus coalition, Israel’s new political leadership raises interesting questions for the Middle East peace process and the Iranian nuclear program.

The first and most obvious benefit for the government is that it will be extremely stable for whatever major decisions it must make—including those involving national security. The coalition now controls 94 of the 120 seats in the Knesset (Israeli parliament), meaning no one single party can bring the government down. It’s all but guaranteed to make it to the November 2013 election date now, the first government to fulfill all four years of its term in Israel in two decades.

It’s not surprising, then, that Prime Minister’s Office spokesman Mark Regev highlighted the benefit of the unity government in dealing with national security and the peace process.

“We’ve got the overall national security challenges, whether it’s the issue of the Palestinians or it’s the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat, as we move ahead to ensure Israel’s security and try to get the peace process back on track,” said Regev in an interview with The Mideast Update on Tuesday. “And to do those things it’s also very important to have a national consensus, having a stable, a strong government. By bringing Kadima in, we believe we further those goals.”

Still, there are questions due to the nature of the newest member of the coalition—the previously opposition-leading Kadima party. Kadima is best known for its political birth out of the Gaza disengagement and its willingness to go further than any previous Israeli government in proposed concessions to the Palestinians.

It’s new leader, Shaul Mofaz, made similar headlines as a critic of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. The Kadima head, according to Haaretz, called for handing over 60 percent of the West Bank for a Palestinian state in a temporary, initial step towards a full deal. He even expressed a willingness to speak with Hamas if the terror group agrees to reform, according to the Haaretz report.

And now, Mofaz is “at the table” in the Israeli government, according to Regev, and he will “be making his opinions heard inside the government at the highest level.”

Will that change things? Maybe, maybe not. Defense Minister Ehud Barak once came the closest any prime minister had ever come at the time to compromising with the Palestinians, and he hasn’t appeared to have taken the government hard left.

What’s more, Netanyahu has repeatedly called for negotiations with the Palestinians and froze a large portion of settlement construction for 10 months. So it’s not like Netanyahu hasn’t already made concessions.

The first test of Mofaz’s influence will be the letter the Israelis have promised to send the Palestinians outlining their thoughts on the peace process. Regev, when asked if the Kadima leader would have a say in the letter’s contents, just noted, “I’m sure he will be contributing to policy on all issues.”

This column isn’t meant to endorse any particular proposal or plan by Mofaz. In fact, the Palestinians have so far refused to engage in ongoing peace talks and keep adding preconditions—not appearing to be a very willing partner for peace. And that doesn’t even take into account the historical and cultural links of Israel to land claimed by the Palestinians.

It appears that the Israelis, even with Mofaz, won’t take too deep a risk. Regev, in commenting on Netanyahu’s belief that the Israeli public has a “strong consensus” position to unite around, noted the desire to “to move forward in peace, but at the same time to be cautious.”

He pointed to the idea of making “sure that Israel’s vital interests, our national interests, our security interests are of course taken into account for a responsible desire for peace, but a genuine desire for peace.”

Unity on Iran?

The other major issue facing the Israeli government is the Iranian nuclear program as it makes progress towards weapons capability or at least a degree of underground invulnerability.

Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor pondered on Twitter if Mofaz would stick to his previous caution on striking Iran’s nuclear facilities. Mofaz, a Jew of Iranian descent, has posited that there is more time before hitting Iran becomes necessary than Barak believes there to be, according to Haaretz.

It’s possible Mofaz didn’t have access to all the data in his previous position, and could reframe his thoughts now. It’s also possible that the government’s main claim to fame—unity—will be the rally cry no matter when, or if, Netanyahu decides to attack Iran.

And it’s also possible that Netanyahu is even more cautious than Mofaz, considering three years have passed and the Israeli leader hasn’t pulled the trigger. An attack on Iran would doubtless lead to a massive counterattack that could hit Israel hard. Hence, they aren’t itching for war.

Regev, in commenting on Netanyahu’s sentiments, said he feels there’s a general unity on this issue too. “Now dealing with the Iranian issue obviously there’s very little difference between left and right in Israel,” said Regev. “I think everyone understands that the marriage of that very extremist regime in Iran with weapons of mass destruction is something that we simply cannot allow to happen.”

Media-wise, there’s some debate on this matter—as there would be in any free society. But one has to wonder if Regev knows something about the government that isn’t making the headlines, whether that’s more caution or less.

He certainly feels that on the peace process and national security “the Israeli public is much more united than many people believe; the Israeli public is much more united than in many ways our fragmented political system allows that [unity] to be expressed.

“And so we think that bringing in this national unity government is good, national unity is good, and in a time when we have enormous challenges we think that this is the right thing to do.”

Time will tell if that hope proves true. Here’s hoping the government’s decisions will someday show that it did.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, May 9, 2012)