An Earthquake

May 14, 2012

A week into J Street’s Leadership Mission to Israel, the earth shook. An earthquake Friday, measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale, rattled Israelis but caused little damage.

The “real earthquake” during our trip – and the one that made headlines – was, of course, political not geological. A surprise midnight deal between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Shaul Mofaz shook Israeli politics, brought Kadima into the government, and averted early elections.

With 94 of the Knesset’s 120 seats now in the government and only eight in the largest opposition party, this is one of Israel’s largest and most stable governments ever.

You may have heard the Prime Minister’s political opponents and media pundits crying foul. They accuse Netanyahu and Mofaz of putting their political interests ahead of the national interest.

Their reaction reminds me a bit of my favorite cinematic moment when Captain Renault closes Rick’s casino in Casablanca, saying he’s, “shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here” – and is then handed his winnings.

I understand how deeply disillusioned people in the U.S. and in Israel are with politics and politicians. How can politicians command respect when one day they say the Prime Minister doesn’t deserve to lead and the next they’re joining the government?

But that’s politics. Israeli law allows a prime minister to shuffle his coalition to strengthen his hand and party leaders like Mofaz to abandon opposition and join the government.

Ultimately, leaders do have to answer to voters, though, and accountability for such a move will come on Election Day. And those who want change need to do more than complain – they need to organize.

For months, many have accused Prime Minister Netanyahu of using his coalition politics as an excuse for not doing anything to achieve a two-state solution. If he were serious about getting something done, critics said, he could just bring in Kadima.

He could free himself from being held hostage by the right wing and take on the tough issues.

So now the excuses are gone. The Prime Minister has said the new coalition will address four issues in the coming months: replacing the law on military/national service that provides exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox; reforming the government and electoral systems; passing a new budget; and addressing Israel’s challenges related to security and peace – vis-à-vis both Iran and the Palestinians.

While all of these issues are priorities for Israel, the last is obviously most relevant to J Street. On our Leadership Mission, we heard clearly that diplomacy and sanctions should be given more time in addressing the Iranian nuclear issue.

And we heard over and over that there is still a narrow window for saving the two-state solution. Few expect real diplomatic progress before the American elections. However, many think there’s a chance the U.S. President will re-engage meaningfully after November. A stable Israeli government with a broad base of political support will be far better positioned to take such an initiative seriously and to weather attack from the far right.

The letters recently exchanged between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas illustrate the daunting gap that prevents the sides from even beginning to talk. The need for a strong mediator – and specifically for the United States – to help the parties to resolve the conflict couldn’t be clearer.

In the United States, the challenge for us in the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement is to use this election year to build political and communal support for the meaningful American engagement needed to save the two-state solution before it slips away.

So, to all my friends in Israel and America, I say stop shaking your heads over the political deal that brought about this new coalition. Let’s get over the shock, shock that there’s politics going on over there.

And let’s organize now to advocate both in the U.S. and in Israel for a renewed effort to get to two states now. Time is running out.

— Jeremy