- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Israel‘s formation of a national unity government, a common strategy by parliamentary governments in times of war or national emergencies, is a move to gird the Jewish state for an impending crisis involving Iran‘s nuclear program.

Though it could have formed a free-standing right-leaning coalition, Likud last week concluded an agreement with Israel’s Labor Party for a national unity government, with Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. After February’s elections, it had seemed the differences between Likud, the leading right-leaning party, and Labor, the leading left-leaning party, were too great to permit unity.

Later it looked as if Labor would split and just half of its members join with Likud. But Israel’s dire security situation, particularly over Iran’s nuclear program, drove Mr. Netanyahu and Labor’s Ehud Barak, who still disagree on the peace process, to overlook their differences. Iran is at the top of the agenda for the incoming Israeli administration, with the peace process lower down.

Reaching an agreement between the parties was not easy. Likud had to tempt Labor with enough political rewards to join the coalition. Likud was willing to pay the price: It needed unity in order to gain international and domestic legitimacy, particularly if and when action is needed against Iran. It had offered Labor a lot - such as five top ministries, including the Defense Ministry, to be headed by Mr. Barak, as in the outgoing government.

It is such a generous offer that Mr. Barak could find himself hard-pressed to find five qualified people in his 13-member faction to staff these positions.

Likud also agreed to adopt Labor’s emergency economic plan with its many benefits for the weaker social classes. This was no simple compromise. During his successful tenure as finance minister in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government, Mr. Netanyahu led the deepest effort in Israel’s history to liberalize and privatize the Israeli economy. Nevertheless, Mr. Netanyahu’s need for national unity was so great that he compromised with Labor on its social-democratic agenda.

The economic plan he accepted includes large government expenditures on social benefits such as retraining the unemployed, opening day care centers for working mothers, increasing state allowances to the elderly, and so on.

In turn, Labor, unable to advance its peace agenda meaningfully, compromised on the peace process. The articles of the coalition agreement between Likud and Labor dealing with this issue are crafted carefully but are vague and unspecific on the issue of compromises with either the Palestinian Authority or Syria.

According to the Likud-Labor agreement, Israel will formulate a proposal for a regionwide peace agreement and cooperation with its neighbors in the Middle East.

But this is no more than a general statement without target dates and specifics. The agreement further states that the new government will be committed to all previously signed international agreements. This is somewhat inconsequential because Mr. Netanyahu never said he intends to disregard previous agreements.

The coalition agreement also states that the government will work to dismantle illegal settlements. However, Mr. Barak, who is the serving defense minister, has not dismantled them thus far.

Labor’s failure to commit Likud to advancing the peace agenda resulted from coalitional realities. Labor is neither the only nor the largest of Likud’s partners. The coalition still rests on the foundation of parties to the right of Likud that object to territorial compromises and would bring the government down in the event they found the compromises too deep.

So Labor joins a coalition over which it has little true power. Why? Mr. Barak, even more than his party, drove Labor’s willingness to enter the coalition and yield to Likud on the issue of the peace process. Now Mr. Barak has decided that Iran’s nuclear ambitions confront Israel with a historic crisis so grave that even the peace process is of secondary importance.

During the stormy Labor Party Central Committee meeting in which Labor voted to join the coalition, Mr. Barak argued before his critics: “I am not chasing any seat … I already served in almost all ministries. I was prime minister and defense minister. … I am not lacking any seat. Whoever thinks that my concern is personal survival, I propose that … he understands the price you pay when you don’t follow fashionable slogans but go against the current, against fashion [and do] what is really correct for the state. … We are responsible for the Labor Party, but we are also responsible for the state of Israel. We don’t have a spare state.”

Even if one looks at Mr. Barak’s statements with a healthy dose of skepticism, there still is much in them. While the new unity government will view the peace process as important, its focus is the national emergency posed by Iran’s nuclear threat.

Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak, two seasoned former prime ministers, are convinced Israel faces decisions of life or death. Twice before, Israel has had national unity governments. Both reflected a national consensus, once because of the grave threat on the eve of the Six-Day War and the second to deal with Israel’s economic meltdown in 1984. Israel is now to have its third unity government - anchored to the emerging national consensus on Iran.

Meyrav Wurmser is director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.

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