Timing is not everything in politics, but it is not nothing. Shaul Mofaz left the coalition last night for the right reasons, which will continue to resonate in Israeli electoral politics, but he is two weeks too late to establish himself, against all odds, as an alternative leader to Benjamin Netanyahu. Nor is it yet clear who will emerge to organize the parties of Global Israel against the governing coalition of Greater Israel. What is clear is that the public conversation has shifted to ground more favorable to the former than anything they’ve enjoyed for some time. And Netanyahu has never looked more vacillating.
Let’s review the bidding. The Supreme Court struck down the Tal Law, and mandated that the burden of national service must be (more or less) universal; Netanyahu—to his credit, and against the protest of his Orthodox partners—chose to respect the verdict. This provided Mofaz, who was headed for an electoral embarrassment, an unexpected opening. He joined the government on the explicit condition that a Kadima back-bencher, Yochanan Plessner, write the law.
It seemed plausible, if unlikely, that Netanyahu took Mofaz into the government because, given this national mood, he was entertaining the idea of gravitating toward an alliance with secular, globalist Tel Aviv against greater Jerusalem and its settlements, his left brain against his right. Indeed, this issue of conscription—Netanyahu surely understood—is the only one where the parties of Global Israel can press an advantage. Yes, a majority favor two-states, but a greater majority have contempt for Palestinian intentions and American meddling; a majority oppose a strike against Iran, but a greater majority want toughness in “the neighborhood” (and the recent massacres in Syria, like today’s horrible bus bombing in Bulgaria, will only reinforce his hawkish prestige). On the matter of conscription, however, Netanyahu’s opponents have a ticket to ride.
Anyway, Netanyahu got spooked at the critical moment, apparently by the thought of abandoning his old, ultra partners and finding himself at the mercy of new ones. He dumped “Plessner.” Demonstrations were called. He then un-dumped him. At that moment, Mofaz should have bolted. Instead he allowed himself (and his young colleague) to be dragged into predictably fruitless negotiations by a back-tracking Netanyahu and his surrogate, Moshe Yaalon, whose idea of conscription reform is, in effect, allowing deferments with no financial of other penalty until age 26 (at which point many Haredi students have multiple children) and then deciding on the draftee’s fate.
Now Mofaz has finally pulled out. But the horse left the barn, the porridge is cold, the blood’s dry. Others have stepped into the vacuum: Kadima’s Haim Ramon is signaling the possibility of a new party, his friend Ehud Olmert is unemployed, and may yet be cleared of other charges pending against him, and Yair Lapid, another friend of Olmert’s, is gaining steam. The chances are reasonable that some new, consolidated, “center” party will form, and it is highly unlikely this bloc will turn to Mofaz for leadership.
Labor’s Shelly Yachimovitch is calling for new elections, which Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin (who should know) predicts will take place next February. Even Avigdor Lieberman is threatening to propose a law in which all 18-year-olds, with no exceptions, will be called up, though this is largely meant to goose Israeli Arabs—and, anyway, he said he will not leave the government if his measure is defeated. (The Knesset summer break begins this week.)
None of this is meant to imply that Mofaz cannot help bring Netanyahu down. He is a general and Mizrahi. He may pull votes from other “center” parties, but may also pull votes they could not pull from Likud—sort of like the way the Volkswagen-owned Skoda Roomster pulls customers from the Volkswagen Golf, but also from the Fiat 500, and so contributes to a larger market share for Volkswagen Group as a whole.
But most important, Mofaz’s gambit, however fumbled, has forced Netanyahu onto the worst possible turf to fight the next election on. An overwhelming majority, some two-thirds, support what “Plessner” represents, if not universal service strictly enforced, then at least much greater social fairness: ordinary Israelis—including Mizrahi Jews and Russians who’ve historically disdained the left—are stressed by the inevitable, largely positive, but also unequal consequences of globalization. They do not agree to go on carrying the extraordinary burdens of unequal national service, unequal taxation, and a fraying social safety net. (In this sense alone, the shocking self-immolation of Moshe Silman at a demonstration Saturday night has struck a deep nerve.)
The same ordinary Israelis, it is true, find it hard to contemplate Israeli Arabs bearing an equal burden. They do not wish equality of privilege. They don’t, in other words, want national service to bring about the “state of its citizens” that many believe (rashly) is “anti-Zionist.” Yet—even if Arabs will be understandably reluctant to serve in the military—a growing chorus of Israelis, certainly in the media, want some demonstration that Arabs would take the benefits and obligations of Israeli citizenship seriously if given half a chance. Arabs attend Israeli universities and are integrated into the medical profession. Why should they not fight fires? (For more on the complex, and surprisingly promising, attitudes of Israeli Arabs to national service, this article by Haaretz editor David B. Green in Tablet is not to be missed.)
So Netanyahu is coming out of the last two months a different leader than the one he was before. Imagine an election next winter, after Netanyahu’s government has punted a genuine conscription law. Ehud Barak, the Defense Minister, says he will simply call everyone, as the Supreme Court requires, but only keep those people he can use. Imagine the stories of favoritism and abuse. Imagine also a new budget which will give Netanyahu’s populist rivals more ammunition to rail against inequalities. Imagine, finally, that Bashar Assad is gone, Egyptian president Morsi has announced he has Hamas’s back in Gaza—and Obama is reelected. Imagine Netanyahu asking Israeli voters to trust him to manage relations with Washington, that is, with no Congressional Republicans around to spring to their feet.