Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Rome this week, where he was hosted by his counterpart Silvio Berlusconi. Netanyahu's goal was to convince Berlusconi to take a stand against United Nations recognition of a Palestinian declaration of statehood.
Berlusconi's support for Israel's position can be taken for granted. But Italy's prime minister, who is mired in sex scandals, charges of corruption and various other domestic political storms, will not be able to extricate Israel from September's "political tsunami."
Netanyahu has a much more effective route for thwarting the Palestinian initiative and protecting Israel from international isolation: He can remove Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman from the cabinet and replace him with Tzipi Livni. Having the centrist Kadima party in the coalition rather than the extreme right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu would send a signal to the world that Israel seeks a diplomatic solution and is not a rejectionist, settlement-crazed state. Then, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas would need to prove that he is serious about diplomacy.
Livni shares this assessment. In an interview she gave late last week, she reiterated her proposal to "create a political drama, and establish an alternative government coalition that will save the State of Israel." She said she was willing to deal with the possibility that such a move might be "the last thing I do in politics." Defense Minister Ehud Barak also supports bringing Kadima into the government.
The political drama which Livni describes would help extricate Netanyahu from the diplomatic tsunami, and spare her the need to compete against Shaul Mofaz in Kadima primaries. Should she become foreign minister, Mofaz would be sent into exile with the national infrastructure or public security portfolio. In any event, his chances of defeating Livni would fade if the party primaries are postponed, since the new coalition would remain intact until November 2013.
Since he delivered his address to Congress last month, the prime minister has visited extremist settler leaders at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, and has invited his coalition partners to a weekend getaway in Safed. The impression is that he is trying to entrench himself with his right-wing coalition and use his government partners to fend off pressure from President Barack Obama to embrace the "1967 border with territory swaps" formula as a basis for renewed negotiations with the Palestinians. Yet Netanyahu has still not taken any irreversible steps that would prevent him from sending participants at last weekend's coalition love-fest in Safed to the opposition. His freedom to act remains unencumbered.
Netanyahu is worried that Lieberman would reap dividends from a reshuffling of the coalition, and that as the new opposition leader, the foreign minister would establish himself as Israel's next right-wing leader. Any step taken by the Netanyahu-Barak-Livni government as a concession to the Palestinians would provide Lieberman's opposition campaign with ammunition. The Yisrael Beiteinu leader would present the prime minister as a leftist held captive in Livni's little palm. Netanyahu remembers well that in the 2006 election, Likud, under his own leadership, won just 116 more votes than Yisrael Beiteinu.
Therefore, daring as it may be, this political realignment may not be enough to strengthen Netanyahu, and could even cost him the next election. He needs to consider a more significant upheaval: namely, the merger of Likud, Kadima and Barak's Atzmaut party into one united faction that would command a group of 60 MKs (half of the Knesset), and run as one bloc in the next elections.
Wave of fusion
In his Knesset speech on May 16, on the eve of his departure for Washington, and again on Wednesday, Netanyahu spoke of various "points of agreement" with the Americans. These included partitioning of the land, with Israel retaining control of settlement blocs and a united Jerusalem, and demanding strict security arrangements from the Palestinians, while for their part, the Palestinians would agree to end the dispute and recognize Israel. Abbas does not accept these demands, but it is definitely possible to rally the Likud, Kadima and Atzmaut behind them.
This could be Israel's response to the winds of uncertainty blowing in the Arab world and the Palestinian Authority. A coalition of this sort would strengthen Israel's position in negotiations with the Palestinians. In domestic terms, it would reflect a return to the bipartisan norms of the Ben-Gurion era, which revolved around the dominant Mapai party.
Even if some right-wing voters would drift into Lieberman's camp and some left-wing voters who supported Livni would return to the Labor Party and Meretz, there would still be a large number of mainstream voters who would cast ballots for the Netanyahu-Barak-Livni alignment. Neither Lieberman, Yair Lapid nor a newly revamped Labor Party could pose a real challenge to such a ticket in a race for national leadership. In this way, Netanyahu could resist being drawn into extremist positions, and could emerge as the head of a "new Mapai," going down in history as a political innovator who united the people, rather than an orator who chalked up a lot of hours as prime minister.
Israel's political history has witnessed waves of mergers and faction splits. Such twists and turns were evident even before the state's establishment in 1948. Five-and-a-half years ago, Likud split into two, and a few months ago, Labor broke apart. David Ben-Gurion served in the Knesset as a member of Mapai, Rafi and the United List parties. Shimon Peres has served in the Knesset as a member of Mapai, Rafi, Labor and Kadima. Ehud Barak has represented both Labor and Atzmaut, and Ariel Sharon belonged to the Liberal party, Shlomtzion, Herut, Likud and Kadima.
The time is ripe for a "reverse" wave, a wave of fusion. In 1963, Yitzhak Ben-Aharon called for the merger of the three workers' parties - Mapai, Ahdut Haavoda and Mapam - in order to prevent the right from taking power. In an article published in 1963 in newspapers belonging to those parties, he explained that the three movements were not the "private property of Ben-Gurion, Tabenkin and Ya'ari" (referring to their leaders ), and that common interests must trump ideological and personal differences. A similar appeal can be made today to Netanyahu, Livni and Barak.
The minute Netanyahu adopted the "two states for two peoples" formula, the ideological barriers between him and Livni and Barak collapsed. The consensus between them is much greater than the consensus between Netanyahu and the right-wing branch of his own Likud party, which rejects the idea of a Palestinian state. Livni and most of Kadima's leaders came from Likud and can easily go back, just as Ahdut Haavoda and Rafi recombined with Mapai in the 1960s to form the Labor Party. The reasons behind the secession from Likud and the establishment of Kadima are no longer relevant: Nobody is talking today about a unilateral pullout from the West Bank. Not only former Likudniks in Kadima can feel comfortable about joining a fused bloc with Netanyahu, Silvan Shalom and Gideon Sa'ar.
The last representative of the historic Labor Party in Kadima's leadership, Dalia Itzik, can easily make her peace with such a union. Itzik has been one of the most consistent supporters of national unity governments. Her favorable view of such an alignment dates back to the time when Kadima was in power. In fact, she recently met with Barak and others in order to promote the idea.
The formation of a united party would force Livni to abandon her plans to race against Netanyahu in the next election. Still, her return to the Foreign Ministry and the position she would assume as lead negotiator with the Palestinians would push her to the front of the race to succeed Netanyahu. For his part, Netanyahu would have a strong cushion virtually guaranteeing him a third term in office, should he not be deflected by some unexpected complication. He would free himself from threats posed by settlers and the extreme right, and would have considerable leverage to act freely, bolstered by the absolute majority he would command in the Knesset.
Up to now, Netanyahu has been at his best when fighting aggressive, strong opponents and resisting his tendency to try to please all those surrounding him. He showed such independence when he voted against direct elections for the prime minister, and violated the party discipline imposed by his political patron, Yitzhak Shamir, in 1992. He also displayed this quality when he waged war against the Oslo Accords and emerged as the leader of a young, inexperienced opposition fighting the titans of that era: Yitzhak Rabin and Peres. So, too, he was at his best when he took a stand against the Histradrut labor federation, the big unions and the banks, while he served as finance minister. And again, during his recent visit to Washington, he exhibited this side of his personality when he stood up to Obama, his popularity at home soaring in response.
Will he also have the courage to square off against his political "home front" and his own family - activists of the extreme right - and create a new, centrist political movement?
Sharon visited Berlusconi in November 2003, on a trip that yielded little more than pointless discussions and warm handshakes - quite reminiscent of the outcome of Netanyahu's trip there this week. Just like Netanyahu today, Sharon faced mounting pressure to initiate a bold political move and not sit on the fence. Under the cover of nightfall, when most members of his entourage and the accompanying press were out having a good time in Rome, Sharon met in his hotel suite with U.S. envoy Elliott Abrams, and told him confidentially of his plans to evacuate all the settlements in the Gaza Strip. That is how the Gaza pullout plan began. It changed Sharon's political fortunes, along with the history of the State of Israel.
Only time will tell whether Netanyahu's own big move was also conceived in Rome, or whether he will prefer to continue to hunker down and have the right-wing serve as his buffer.
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