No one anticipated the dead-of-night political drama.
In a secret maneuver on the sidelines of a Knesset plenum vote to disperse the Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz reached a surprise agreement early Tuesday morning. The move annulled elections and led to the establishment of a huge coalition with 94 MKs.
The maneuver surprised both the political system and the media, which only started reporting the sudden reversal after 1:30 a.m., not long before legislative activity in the plenum was halted. Some newspapers had already printed headlines announcing the Knesset had been dispersed. Some had even printed analyses regarding the political repercussions of the High Court of Justice decision to evacuate homes in Beit El.
The decision to establish a unity government will officially go into effect Wednesday, when Shaul Mofaz is sworn in and receives the positions of deputy prime minister and minister without portfolio. As early as Wednesday he will take part in a diplomatic meeting with EU Foreign Minister Katherine Ashton. For now, Mofaz will be the only Kadima minister, but politicos believe that Kadima — currently the largest party in the coalition — will receive three additional portfolios. This is based on an oral agreement between Netanyahu and Mofaz to the effect that the growing partnership between the two parties will lead to Kadima receiving additional cabinet posts.
Despite the coalition's large size, it will soon face no small number of challenges: finding an alternative to the Tal Law, evacuating the settlement neighborhood of Ulpana Hill and approving a new government budget. It will face all these challenges just as presidential elections take place in the U.S. in November, with the issue of the Iranian threat looming in the background.
The idea of a unity government was first floated among senior Kadima members several weeks ago, when members of Mofaz's entourage began to understood that the party's odds of surviving the elections were diminishing. Among the prominent supporters of a unity government was MK Yulia Berkovich-Shamalov. Aides to Mofaz as well as Likud aides held several preliminary meetings, but none of them developed into anything significant.
On Wednesday one week ago, the gears started to turn. Coalition Chairman Zeev Elkin (Likud) met with strategic advisor to Mofaz, Lior Horev, and with Mofaz's chief of staff, Avi Widerman. The three of them hashed out various scenarios, but last Friday, at the end of the shiva (mourning) period for the prime minister's father Benzion Netanyahu, the prime minister's aides delivered a message: There is nothing to talk about, we're going to elections.
On Sunday, Netanyahu arrived at the Likud Convention without knowing of any serious developments in the works that might forestall elections. Despite ongoing talks between Kadima and Likud members, these were not being coordinated with Netanyahu and Mofaz. The only people keeping the channels open and acting with the permission and authority of higher-ups were Horev and Elkin. However, after several failed attempts to reach an agreement, it appeared as though the elections were a done deal.
On Monday morning, hours before the Knesset was expected to approve an early elections law, the defense minister's chief of staff, Yoni Koren, received a phone call from Horev. Horev requested help in finding the most appropriate person in Netanyahu's circle with whom to float a new proposal that might prevent elections.
Without hesitation, Koren suggested Natan Eshel, the prime minister's former chief of staff. With Koren as a go-between, Horev and Eshel were soon speaking by phone, and within half an hour they held a face-to-face meeting at the latter's Tel Aviv home. The level of mutual suspicion between the two men, who had never met before, was great.
Nevertheless, the meeting between Horev and Eshel ended with a sense that there was reason to continue talking. The two went to Jerusalem, where they briefed Koren as well as Netanyahu and Mofaz. At 4 p.m. Monday, when Knesset chairman Reuven Rivlin announced to the Knesset plenum that this would probably be the Knesset's last sitting, Netanyahu and Mofaz were holding their first meeting at the Prime Minister's Residence on Balfour Street.
The two were soon forced to cut short their meeting to participate in a special Knesset session on Herzl Day, where they were expected to speak. Following their speeches the two men got into their cars and sped back to the Prime Minister's Residence, careful to leave the Knesset building separately so as not to arouse suspicion. This time, Defense Minister Ehud Barak joined them and was asked to approve the draft. In a side room in the prime minister's residence, aides sat together and began putting the agreement in writing. At this point, Elkin was made privy to the secret deal in a telephone call.
Once again, however, negotiations were interrupted when the two leaders were summoned back to the Knesset for the vote to disperse the Knesset in a first reading. When the vote was complete, it was already close to midnight. Netanyahu, Mofaz and their respective staffs rushed to the prime minister's residence for the last time. Those present in the Knesset plenum, including many journalists, started to feel like something was afoot, but only at 1:30 a.m. was the bomb finally dropped: Netanyahu asked to convene the Likud party at 2 a.m. Mofaz made the same request of his party. There would be a unity government.
On Tuesday, in an interview with Channel 2 news, Eshel stressed that negotiations had not taken place during Benzion Netanyahu's shiva. "This is a step that every prime minister would seek, but only a few could achieve it," Eshel said. He indicated that he had helped with the process in a private capacity. "I know that alongside all the politicians, there are private individuals as well who are friends of the prime minister. I did not start being Netanyahu's friend three years ago. I've been by his side for 17 years and I truly believe I acted not just as a friend. I believe in the man and his path," he said.
The coalition agreement
The new coalition agreement stipulates that Likud will pass an alternative to the Tal Law by the end of June, as well as work to change to the system of government by the end of December, so that by the next elections there will be a new system of rule in Israel. It was also agreed that Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz would be appointed deputy prime minister as well as minister without portfolio in the Prime Minister's Office. During negotiations, Netanyahu offered Mofaz a special defense portfolio that would include responsibility for the organs of security and intelligence, but Mofaz declined the offer.
Mofaz will also be a member of the diplomatic-security cabinet, as well as the Forum of Eight (which will now be called the Forum of Nine). The agreement stipulates that Mofaz will be a member of any security forum that the prime minister is part of, so that in effect a new forum has now been created, the triumvirate, which will consist of Netanyahu, Barak and Mofaz.
Additional points in the agreement concern the renewal of the peace process, advancing the issue of internal security, social policy and more. Kadima will head the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee as well as the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, but will be forced to resign its chairmanship of the State Control Committee.
In addition to their written agreement, Mofaz and Netanyahu reached oral agreements that Mofaz described in a Kadima faction meeting as "secret agreements." According to these oral agreements, as the partnership between Likud and Kadima grows in the coming months, party members will receive additional jobs in the government and Knesset. It was important to Mofaz that this be agreed upon orally and not in writing, so as to prevent criticism that Kadima had entered the government in order to garner senior jobs.