Barely a month after a dramatic move to reshape his coalition by including the centrist Kadima party, Benjamin Netanyahu is already reaping benefits. Last week, the broad coalition of 94 (out of 120) Knesset members enabled him to defeat extreme right-wing settlers and their advocates in his governing coalition. This may portend change in the Likud party itself, and with it a redrawing of the Israeli political map. Any potential change still leaves the question of the kind of leadership the Israeli Prime Minister will provide.
Over the past three years, Mr. Netanyahu repeatedly claimed his hands were tied by partners in a narrow rightist government. But not any more. With Kadima in the tent, he can securely manoeuvre between right and centre and has gained the ability to do anything he wants. Recent events underscore this point.
At issue was a Supreme Court ruling ordering the demolition of five buildings constructed illegally on private Palestinian land within the Beit El settlement, and a blocking effort, led by right-wing parliamentarians, to pass legislation circumventing the ruling. Irritated by the ruling, but recognizing that the proposed law would have serious domestic and international legal ramifications, Mr. Netanyahu decided to call the extreme right's bluff. (This should not be construed as a change in his traditional position in support of settlements. Insistence on respecting the court's ruling came with a promise to expand other settlement areas the state considers legal.)
Underlying the policy decision is a serious political worry for Mr. Netanyahu. He's alarmed by the threat to his leadership from an extreme right-wing faction in Likud, which has sold mass party memberships to the ideological settler movement. They want the power to vote in a slate of hard-line Knesset candidates for the next election (no later than October, 2013), and through them to take over the party. Mr. Netanyahu courts the right, but wants to position himself in the centre. At last month's Likud convention, seeing this faction in action led him to cancel early elections and turn to Kadima to form a national unity government. Now, he's sent a clear message by forcefully bending cabinet ministers and Knesset members from across the coalition's right wing – all of whom were set to vote for the renegade bill but who backed off when they realized they'd lost their brinkmanship capability.
The pervasive right-wing shift in Likud has already led to speculation that Mr. Netanyahu might follow Ariel Sharon's lead and split the party yet again. (In 2005, facing opposition to the disengagement from Gaza, then-prime minister Sharon broke away from Likud and created Kadima as a centrist-oriented alternative to Likud on the right and Labour on the left.)
But unlike Mr. Sharon's daring determination, Mr. Netanyahu's style is more one of tactical manoeuvring. This could lead to a milder reshuffling of existing parties with common interests. He wants to see the extreme wing in Likud neutralized. Kadima's leader, Shaul Mofaz, is weak and some of his caucus members are plotting a break. And Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who broke away from Labour last year, is left with a rump party that lacks public support. Approaching the next election, the three men may form a bloc that will position Mr. Netanyahu where he wants to be – distanced from the extreme right, comfortably situated in his right-centre base and even stronger than he is now.
Time magazine and Vanity Fair recently devoted lengthy profiles to a Prime Minister who dominates his country's political map unchallenged. (Time went so far as to coin the epithet “King Bibi.”) But both rightly question the legacy he will leave on the now dormant Palestinian file. Ironically, the super-coalition he has grants Mr. Netanyahu great scope for action, but also allows him to do nothing. Absent any meaningful opposition, he can, if he chooses, act boldly on this critical issue for the country's future – or leave it deadlocked as it presently is. The question mark remains.