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Double U-Turn in ‘Theatre of the Absurd’

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JERUSALEM, May 11 2012 (IPS) - A double-barrelled ‘coup de théâtre’ – advanced, then postponed, elections within days – has disoriented a polity accustomed to grappling passively with their Prime Minister’s backstage intrigues. But the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ played outwardly by the “virtuoso of Israeli politics” conceals a deep need for stability.

The man who, behind the scene, orchestrated the demise of his own government made another abrupt about-face.

In darkness, literally hours before the final reading of the law scheduled on Tuesday to enact the dissolution of the Knesset parliament and to set early elections in motion, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a sudden change of heart.

At dawn, he reached a surprise agreement with Shaul Mofaz, head of the opposition as freshly-nominated chairman of the centre-right Kadima party, formed a national unity government, and simply re-scheduled the general election to its original date, October 2013.

Under the agreement, the 28-seat party, the largest of the current parliament, joined forces with Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition and committed to supporting its policies through the end of its full four- year term. Mofaz was anointed deputy premier in the new 32-tentacle government.

A former chief of staff and defence minister during the second Intifadah uprising (2000-2005), Mofaz will also serve in the inner security cabinet that devises strategic policies; Kadima legislators will chair the Foreign Affairs and Defence, and Economics committees.

Twice in days, Israel’s polity was shaken to its very core. Last week, out of the blue by all accounts, general elections were advanced.

Coalition partners and opponents alike found it hard to decipher the motive which prompted Netanyahu’s decision – but jumped on the electioneering bandwagon without asking questions.

Caught in the frenzy of campaigning for their political survival, politicians of all persuasions didn’t bother reflecting on the necessity of advanced elections. After all, Netanyahu’s government radiated strength and stability; polls uniformly predicted the would-be incumbent’s hand-down victory.

A posteriori justifying the new turn of events, pundits then raised a flurry of legitimate assumptions.

A law allowing the exemption from military service of ultra-orthodox students was deemed unconstitutional by the High Court. With Jewish religious parties keen on preserving their constituency’s privileges, the abrogation of the Tal Law risked setting off a coalition crisis.

Then, there are the very public threats by Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak of a unilateral strike on Iran’s suspicious nuclear facilities, possibly to prod the U.S.-led international community to act more forcefully.

The confirmation of Netanyahu at the helm for four more years in a landslide victory would have added credibility to the threat, especially during the Sep. 4-Nov. 6 interim period between the would-be elections and the U.S. elections.

But no one took into account the incredibly dynamic versatility of politics.

On Sunday, without uttering the “Sep. 4″ buzzword, Netanyahu convened the Likud Central Committee. He was seeking endorsement by the often disobedient assembly of his position as party chairman.

The usually symbolic position would empower him with influence over the crucial selection of party candidates on the Likud electoral list. In Israel’s system of pure proportional representation, the prominence of members depends on the proportion of the vote received by their party.

Netanyahu wanted to reserve a slot high on the Likud list to Barak, former chairman of the Labour party and head of the ‘Independence’ party.

Netanyahu had already in 2011 orchestrated a rupture within Labour, then a coalition partner highly critical of no-peace policy. Barak broke away, created ‘Independence’ and remained in the coalition; Labour joined the opposition.

But recent polls showed that Barak would stand almost no chance of being elected.

The Defence Minister is Netanyahu’s closest ally in trying to shore up international support for a military action against Iran. The Likud Central Committee’s refusal to include an outsider in the prospective list compelled Netanyahu to postpone the vote on his nomination as party chairman.

That’s when Mofaz entered the limelight.

A fortnight ago, he succeeded Tzippi Livni as party head following primaries in Kadima. Though both contestants rose from within Likud (Kadima itself is an offshoot of both Labour and Likud), Livni is more liberal than Mofaz.

Mofaz has long been tainted as being Netanyahu’s ‘Trojan Horse’. Desperately trying to desist from the obstinate suspicion, just days before the latest national unity twist, he called Netanyahu a “liar”.

Yet he faced another hurdle. Also not taking off in the polls, with only four months to organise (were elections to be advanced), he was less than a convincing alternative to Netanyahu.

With or without elections, a new enlistment law (the former is expected to expire in August) and tackling Iran’s nuclear quest both remain on the agenda. Both issues serve to promote Netanyahu’s declared quest for “stability” – this, after having destabilised the country.

Besides, the new government has pledged to enact a reform of the unruly electoral system.

With a 94-member coalition, the largest in Israel’s political annals, Netanyahu has a re-affirmed one-and- a-half year lifeline (before the restored election deadline) to prove that he indeed means business.

His centrist-oriented coalition will now be less dependent on its extreme right fringes. The question is whether Netanyahu will now seek to advance meaningful negotiations with President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.

With only 26 legislators in the 120-members Knesset, the now Labour-led heteroclite opposition of liberal, leftist and Arab parties is reduced to virtually nothing. Shelli Yechimovitch, the self-proclaimed new leader of the opposition bemoaned “the most ridiculous zigzag in the history of Israeli politics.” But the Netanyahu government is more immutable than ever.

During a joint press conference with Netanyahu, Mofaz recalled that, days before the June 1967 war, as Arab countries massed troops on Israel’s borders, a national unity government was formed in order to face the “existential threat”. The Six-Day war eventually changed the face of the Middle East.

Stressing the Iranian threat, the Iranian-born Mofaz, a dove regarding unilaterally deterring the Ayatollah regime from pursuing its nuclear programme, seemed to imply that the rest is not yet history.

 
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