Israel went to sleep with a Knesset that was about to be dissolved, and awoke to the biggest political bombshell in recent memory — a national unity government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition head Shaul Mofaz shocked the system early Tuesday [May 8, 2012] when they announced they had reached an agreement, just a few hours after the proposal to dissolve the Knesset and move elections up to September 4 was passed in a first reading. “We had no idea,” said senior ministers, including those close the prime minister.
While the proposal to move up the elections was supposed to go up for a second and third reading, Netanyahu and Mofaz convened their factions, who approved the surprising move formulated behind the scenes in the last few days. In the framework of the agreement between the two parties, it was decided that a law to replace the Tal Law will be legislated by the end of July, the system of government will be changed before the next elections and a “national emergency budget” will be established. Netanyahu said that the main partners in the existing coalition, Avigdor Lieberman from Yisrael Beiteinu and Eli Yishai of Shas, welcomed the agreement.
“I didn’t want to go to elections,” said Netanyahu, “but because I identified loose strings, I decided to go. We agreed with Mofaz on a replacement for the Tal Law by the end of July, and a law to change the system of government by the end of December. I also spoke with Shas and with Yvette [Lieberman] and they agreed.” He also later called President Shimon Peres, who is on a visit to Canada, and gave him the details. Peres expressed support for the move and gave the prime minister his blessing.
“We did something big for the State of Israel,” Mofaz said. "An unprecedented agreement that enables improvements and an equal distribution of burden. I don’t need ministerial portfolios, not even for myself.” Yishai also expressed support: “I was in on the secret from the beginning. The prime minister informed me of the whole process. It should be noted that the move does not contradict the existing coalition agreement with Shas. On the Tal Law, a special committee will be established to formulate the wording.”
Tzipi Livni responded this morning on her Facebook page, writing, “This morning, I want to say one thing to all of you. I know exactly the feelings with which you are overcome right now after last night’s events — but remember that there is a different kind of politics, and it will win.”
It should be noted that on March 3, Mofaz wrote the following on his Facebook page: “Listen well — I will not enter Bibi’s government. Not today and not after I stand at the head of Kadima on March 28. This is a bad government, failed and closed off, and Kadima under my leadership will replace it in the next elections. Is that clear enough?”
Mofaz will serve as deputy prime minister and a minister without portfolio in the government, and will be a member of political and security forums. He will also fill in for the prime minister in the latter’s absence. Kadima members will get additional portfolios down the line. As of now, the elections will take place in October 2013, as planned. In the framework of the deal, Kadima will lead the Economics Committee in the Knesset.
Behind the move was Natan Eshel, formerly Netanyahu’s bureau chief (who left over the harassment of an employee in the bureau) and Lior Horev, Mofaz’s advisor. Defense Minister Ehud Barak was also in on the secret.
Senior Likud officials estimate that Netanyahu believed the public backs a change on the matter of enlisting yeshiva (religious) students, and decided to spearhead the move for a national unity government. Mofaz, on his part, understood that September elections would see the political collapse of Kadima, and agreed to back Netanyahu until the end of his term and pass the replacement to the Tal Law — even if Shas decides to pull out. Additionally, both men are interested in damaging the chances of Yair Lapid, and therefore decided to cooperate.
Ministers Gideon Sa’ar and Yuval Steinitz expressed support for Netanyahu and satisfaction over the budget agreed upon in the deal between the two parties. On the other hand, ministers Silvan Shalom and Moshe Kahlon expressed reservations at a faction meeting.
The last contacts between the sides took place over the course of the day. Mofaz came to the Knesset cafeteria in the afternoon for an urgent discussion. He then disappeared. His legal advisor, Alon Gellert, arrived in the evening at the prime minister’s residence in order to finalize the coalition agreement. Ynet was told that Minister Ariel Atias met with Eshel a few days ago for several hours.
Before the drama was publicized, the Knesset last night approved in a first reading the government proposal to dissolve the Knesset. The House Committee approved the proposal for a second and third reading, but at the last minute, the contacts between Kadima and Likud were finalized and the unity government agreement was achieved, toppling all the cards.