Netanyahu's Coup

I know I should be appalled by Shaul Mofaz’s opportunism and Benjamin Netanyahu’s grin but I confess to being just a little relieved.

Netanyahu was about to call an election because his coalition was about to collapse. The Israeli Supreme Court had found the Tal Law, through which ultra-orthodox youth shirk military service, unconstitutional: a violation of the equality provisions of the Basic Law of Human Dignity. Netanyahu thus faced a choice: He could defy the court and flout the Basic Law—neither of which is popular among Likud’s rank and file at, say, Beitar Jerusalem football games—and appease the religious parties in his coalition. But then he would be playing with constitutional fire, something I suspect he, Barak, Mofaz and many in the Likud with IDF pedigree are sincerely loathe to do.

More important, Netanyahu would be infuriating the large secular majority, including many pro-Bibi reactionaries, and pro-Lieberman Russians, who are fed up with paying the taxes and doing the reserves while the Orthodox work to shut down their seafood restaurants.

For most Israelis, demographic fears have less to do with the fertility of West Bank Palestinians—whom Israelis are all too accustomed to excluding from their democracy—than the fertility of Haredim and Israeli Arabs whom they know they cannot, and who soak up most spending on family allowances. Already, 25% of first graders in Israel proper are orthodox and ultra-orthodox classrooms, and 25% are in Arab classrooms. You don’t have to be a prophet to see where the children of Israel are heading.

So, yes, Mofaz made his move because Kadima was headed for an embarrassing defeat, though (as I wrote here earlier) he was better positioned than any other “centrist” to go down swinging: strengthening Netanyahu’s overall opposition, that is, by cutting into Likud’s Mizrahi and Russian tribes, and thus possibly denying the current roster of parties in Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition its narrow Knesset majority. And, yes, Netanyahu can now put off having to face an electorate that is more volatile than the polls show and will eventually vote with half an eye on the American election.

Still, a Likud-Kadima “unity” coalition actually represents an overdue alignment of the urbane forces in the country that have to come together to preserve Israeli civil society. You study Weimar and other failed democracies and you see that things can go in another, more horrifying direction when secular parties with at least a core of liberal leaders fight each other rather than make common cause against nationalist and clerical fanatics.

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