Is Iran Just an Excuse for Israel's New Unity Government?

Mofaz has made clear that he does not share Netanyahu's and Barak's sense of urgency that a decision must be made even before this year is out.

Is Iran just an excuse? That is the main security question floating over the surprise decision to establish a national unity government and forego early elections. Just last week, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to move up elections, he explained to a number of media outlets that elections in September would make it easier for him and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to attack Iran. On Tuesday, the exact same claim was heard, but going in the opposite direction: MK Shaul Mofaz and Kadima joining the coalition would stabilize the political situation and make it easier to deal resolutely, if necessary, with Iran.

But this explanation is relevant mainly if decisive new information emerges that changes basic positions on the Iranian question.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima head Shaul Mofaz, Jerusalem, May 8, 2012.
Emil Salman

Kadima's chairman has taken a great deal of fire for his political flip-flop, for joining a government led by a man he described not long ago as a liar, and for breaking his (empty ) promise to lead the social protest this summer. But politicians' flip-flopping out of dread of the ballot box is nothing new.

What, if anything, actually happens with Iran is more important.

Only a little more than a month ago, after Mofaz was elected chairman of Kadima, he told Haaretz's Yossi Verter in an interview that at least two years still remained to deal with the Iranian threat. Mofaz has made clear that he does not share Netanyahu's and Barak's sense of urgency that a decision must be made even before this year is out.

But now that political considerations have caused him to bend so much, will he be able to stand tall again if a decision to attack must be made?

There is practically no ideological component in the dispute over how to deal with Iran. This debate is strategic and personal. The entire Israeli leadership, past and present, agrees that an Israeli military attack should not be ruled out as a last resort. The debate is over whether Israel should act relatively soon, despite clear U.S. opposition.

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, and even more so former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, inserted the personal element into the discussion in their direct attacks on the purity of Barak's and Netanyahu's motives.

Mofaz's views are not far from Diskin's and Dagan's. Thus, unless something fateful happens on the ground, Mofaz's joining the security forum of eight senior ministers will actually have a moderating effect.

Like most significant decisions Israeli prime ministers make, it will probably take time before we know the real reasons for Netanyahu's actions, before we get past the official version to the behind-the-scenes considerations.

Even in the surprising decision to make a deal for Gilad Shalit's release, only in hindsight did it become clear that the need for an achievement which would make the people happy after a summer of social protest played a key role.

At least for now, the most reasonable explanation has to do with politics, not Iran. Netanyahu was facing a double threat: the law to dissolve the Knesset, which he himself set in motion, and the two-month deadline the High Court of Justice set for the evacuation of the houses in the West Bank neighborhood of Ulpana, which could yet set him on a collision course with the settlers. He also failed at the Likud central committee convention earlier this week. Meanwhile, Mofaz was pushed into the unity government because of the polls' ominous predictions of his party's crash on election day.

At Tuesday's joint press conference, the pair hardly mentioned Iran. When Netanyahu was asked about disagreements between himself and Mofaz on the issue, his response was vague. Iran, until proven otherwise, does not seem to be the main impetus behind the unity government.