Benjamin Netanyahu has struck a surprise deal with Israel’s main opposition party to form a national unity government, in a move that hands the prime minister an overwhelming majority in parliament and secures his position ahead of a possible conflict with Iran.
The agreement with Shaul Mofaz, leader of the centrist Kadima party, puts Mr Netanyahu, who heads Likud, in a position of power enjoyed by few of his predecessors. It marks a sharp reversal for both leaders and paves the way for a dramatic realignment in Israeli politics.
It also adds the largest faction in parliament to Mr Netanyahu’s already broad coalition, which can now count on the support of an unprecedented 94 out of 120 deputies in the Knesset. As a result, the prime minister will no longer depend on any one of the smaller parties in his alliance.
The deal, which was announced on Tuesday, reverses Mr Netanyahu’s call for an early September election. His decision to dissolve parliament a year ahead of time to seek a new popular mandate was prompted by worries that his coalition was starting to succumb to internal strife.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Mr Mofaz, the Israeli leader said: “I was ready to go to elections. But when I learnt that a very broad government can be established, the broadest in Israel’s history, I realised that stability can be restored. That is why I have decided to form a broad national unity government.”
Israeli analysts were quick to point out that national unity governments are traditionally a feature of wartime, and many linked the Netanyahu-Mofaz pact to speculation over an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear programme. The prime minister and Ehud Barak, the defence minister, are widely believed to be considering such a strike, but they are facing mounting opposition both at home and abroad.
The deal with Kadima not only broadens Mr Netanyahu’s mandate significantly but also adds another respected military figure to his cabinet. Mr Mofaz, the only Kadima politician to join the government as a result of the deal, is a former defence minister and former chief-of-staff of the Israeli armed forces. He will be the third former army chief inside the government, along with Mr Barak and Moshe Yaalon, the minister for strategic affairs.
Analysts said the presence of so many former top officers is likely to boost public confidence in the cabinet should the crisis with Iran escalate. It may also dilute the impact of a series of recent attacks on Mr Netanyahu’s Iran policy by retired security professionals such as Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad intelligence agency.
“The addition of Mofaz ... gives Netanyahu and Barak a protective vest against any political opposition of a move against Iran,” argued Amir Oren, a columnist for the Haaretz daily. Ron Ben-Yishai made a similar point in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper: “Should a decision to strike Iran be taken, the existence of a unity government will reduce the danger of criticism should the operation fail or lead to unexpected results,” he wrote.
The deal with Kadima may also help Mr Netanyahu to tackle one of the thorniest issues facing his government – the looming expiry of the controversial Tal Law, which exempts most members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community from military service. The debate over how to replace the law has long threatened to divide the coalition, which comprises parties backed by the ultra-Orthodox as well as strongly secular groups.
Both Mr Mofaz and Mr Netanyahu said the issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the army would be one of the priorities of the new coalition, as would a reform of Israel’s electoral system, which favours small parties and has been widely blamed for the growing fragmentation of parliament.
News of the unity deal sparked outrage among remaining members of the opposition, who accused Mr Mofaz of breaking his word. The Kadima leader, who took over the party only last month, had declared repeatedly that he would never join Mr Netanyahu’s government, branding the prime minister a “liar” and describing his government as “all that is wrong with Israel”.
Analysts said his U-turn came in response to recent opinion polls predicting a significant decline in support for Kadima in a September election.
Shelly Yachimovich, the head of the centre-left Labour party and the new leader of the opposition, denounced the unity deal as “the most ridiculous zigzag in the history of Israeli politics”. Turning on the Kadima leader, she added: “Does anyone believe a word that came out of Mofaz’s mouth at the press conference?”