05.08.12 9:00 PM ET
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.
If these leaders really do revamp the conscription laws, creating (what the Supreme Court mandated) an equality of obligation that includes young ultra-orthodox and Arab citizens, and, moreover, if they really do change the electoral system, say, by raising the threshold for parties to enter the Knesset—so that small religious factions do not remain tails looking for dogs to wag—the country may well step back from a brink that is very much worse than it seems, even to Israelis.
In a way, Netanyahu's governing coalition is, in a single stroke, making itself hostage as much to Tel Aviv's young globalists as it has been to Jerusalem's young messianists. This will not have an immediate effect on the Palestinian question, but the rebalancing of Netanyahu's political portfolio—the merging of secular elites with army-brass moderates—will subtly change the atmosphere, if only because settlers are almost as weird on Rothschild Boulevard as Haredim are. Israel is facing a Kulturkampf. If one piece of Global Israel's puzzle advances, then other pieces become more plausible.
Mofaz, for his part, will have a chance to develop as a national leader much as Lieberman did before him, gaining gravitas from exposure on daily newscasts, carrying the burdens of state, as he did when he was Defense Minister. This will not allow him to emerge from under Netanyahu's shadow, but it may well allow him to increase his following among more center-right voters that he'll need to steal from the hard right to justify Kadima's existence.
Mofaz's constituents on the affluent coastal plain will be looking for progress on the Palestinian front and he knows it. He has already broken from rightist dogma, speculating that Fatah-Hamas unity may not be so bad, and that Israeli forces should at least clear out of more of the West Bank's Area C. Then again, he may just try to bring a rump of Kadima into the Likud, as Barak did with the rump of Labor, and make himself and his party irrelevant to national politics, though not to Likud politics.
In short, Mofaz's move is not the end of a story but the beginning of one. We should not assume it is bad news just because Netanyahu gains from it. When you think about it, what was Tzipi Livni waiting for?