Over the coming days, people in the prime minister’s circle will be emphasizing the wonderful chemistry, as well as the physical and ideological similarity, between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid. This is good for creating a pleasant atmosphere for coalition negotiations and good for reassuring the world that now a moderate government will be formed in Jerusalem “that will promote the peace process.”
But Netanyahu’s political interests dictate that the real negotiations begin elsewhere. In order to shore up his power base after the hit he took in the elections, Netanyahu needs to get Kadima’s two incoming MKs, Shaul Mofaz and Israel Hasson, who succeed in passing the electoral threshold and are waiting for a job, to join Likud.
Getting Kadima to join Likud will enlarge the ruling party’s Knesset faction to 33 seats, and more importantly, will widen the gap between the Knesset’s right-wing and center-left blocs to 63-57.
That would drastically lower the price that Lapid can demand in coalition negotiations, especially regarding the matter that most perturbs Netanyahu: limiting the number of ministers in the government. If a right wing-Mofaz government holds a solid majority in the Knesset, Lapid will have to become more flexible, and stuff all the weekend headlines that described him as a king, a prince, the big winner in the elections and a political genius in a
Such a move, in which a small Knesset faction merges with the party in power, has its precedents. Ariel Sharon’s Shlomtzion party returned to the Likud with its two Knesset seats after the 1977 elections. Ezer Weizman’s Yahad party, with its three seats, joined the Labor Party in 1984. Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael b’Aliyah, with two seats, joined Ariel Sharon’s Likud after the 2003 elections. Kadima’s Mofaz and Hasson began their political careers in Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, respectively. They won’t find it difficult to return to their roots.
Mofaz’s price is known and was visible in every Kadima election poster and broadcast from the last elections: He wants to be defense minister once again, as he was in Sharon’s first government. During the election campaign, Mofaz expressed his strong desire to serve in the next government. Although Kadima came last in the race, the political circumstances enable Mofaz to demand from Netanyahu the office he desires in Tel Aviv’s Kirya compound.
Netanyahu will demand in return that Mofaz and Hasson join the Likud party to neutralize their ability to instigate political crises or threaten to upend the coalition in the future. Likud’s ministers will swallow the deal and agree to give Mofaz the defense portfolio in order to force Lapid to bend and increase the quota of ministerial positions that can be filled by Likud politicians.
All signs point to Netanyahu not being thrilled with possibility of giving the defense portfolio to the natural candidate, at least in his own eyes, Likud MK Moshe Ya’alon. Kadima’s chairman presents a palatable alternative. The experienced Mofaz is well-suited to the job. He is detail-oriented, thorough when working with a staff and has the proven ability to establish political control over the army – the weak point of outgoing defense minister Ehud Barak, who caused the embarrassing entanglement known as the Harpaz affair due to his conflicts with former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.
The single snag in a potential Netanyahu-Mofaz alliance is the latter’s outspoken opposition to an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations. But there is a benefit to this opposition: Appointing Mofaz defense minister will announce that Israel is moving away from war with Iran and will grant Netanyahu a good opening to come to terms with Obama in the American president’s second term. Netanyahu will send the “moderate” Mofaz to engage U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in discussions. In any event, the chances of an Israeli attack on Iran have decreased, and changing circumstances bring the idea back to the top of the agenda, Mofaz will change his position.
Mofaz’s past behavior proves that he is an opportunist without any political principles. Thus, he remained in Likud declaring, “One doesn’t leave a home,” shorty before joining Ariel Sharon’s Kadima party. So,too, Mofaz joined and then left the Netanyahu government only a few months ago. In a similar vein, Mofaz’s recent election campaign intentionally focused on his stature and experience and not on a party platform or ideology.
There is no shared faith or closeness between Mofaz and Netanyahu. In the past, Kadima’s chairman hurled harsh invective at the prime minister. This didn’t prevent the two from forming a short-lived national unity government last spring and it doesn’t need to impede their maneuvering now. There will probably be friction and arguments between them in the next government as well, but their shared political interest will overcome it. Mofaz is no longer the head of the largest centrist party in the Knesset. The time has come for him to return home, to Likud.