In a stunning move that appeared to take most Israeli politicians by surprise, and happened while most citizens slept, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu early Tuesday morning reportedly cancelled plans for an early election this September and agreed to form a unity government with the Kadima party under its new leader, Shaul Mofaz.
The deal that was first reported by some Israeli media outlets in the wee hours of the morning will apparently make Mr. Mofaz deputy prime minister in a new government led by Mr. Netanyahu.
The appointment of Mr. Mofaz, who was born in Iran, is significant in Israel’s standoff with Iran as he has been a vocal critic of Israel striking Iran’s nuclear sites on its own.
It was unclear which other parties would participate in the coalition. Taken together, Mr. Netanyahu’s and Mr. Mofaz’s parties only have 55 seats in total, six short of a necessary majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
Earlier Monday evening, the Knesset had debated and had begun voting on a special bill to dissolve the parliament and call an election for Sept. 4.
Under the agreement worked out between the two leaders, Kadima is apparently committed to supporting the government’s policies through to the end of its mandate in October, 2013.
In return, Mr. Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to support a proposal by Kadima to replace the so-called Tal Law that provides for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men to be exempt from military service while studying at religious schools. The exemption has been the source of considerable public outrage over young men deferring their obligatory military service through their adulthood and receiving considerable financial support from the government for their studies.
Both parties reportedly also agreed to support unannounced changes to the country’s electoral system.
Zahava Gal-On, leader of the opposition Meretz party, called the move “a disgrace to the Israeli parliament,” adding that it sends “a terrible message to the public, which is losing faith in the leadership of the state.”
Mr. Mofaz, a former chief of the Israel Defence Forces, served as defence minister in the Likud government of Ariel Sharon from 2002 to 2005. He initially declined Mr. Sharon’s offer to join him in forming a new party, Kadima, in 2005, choosing to compete for the Likud leadership against Mr. Netanyahu.
In December of that year, however, he withdrew from the race and joined Kadima after all, serving uneasily under subsequent leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni.
Mr. Mofaz was elected head of Kadima just two weeks ago, defeating Ms. Livni in a party primary.
He told Israeli media at the time of the primary that, if elected, he would not serve in a government led by Mr. Netanyahu.
“Kadima under my leadership will remain in the opposition,” he told the Haaretz newspaper. “The current government represents all that is wrong with Israel, I believe. Why should we join it?” he said.