Sebastian Scheiner / AP
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz shake hands before holding a joint press conference announcing the new coalition government in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
TEL AVIV – Love him or hate him, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is proving to be the consummate politician.
Within a space of 24 hours he surprised Israelis by first announcing early elections – and then astonished them by changing his mind and presenting them with a new government.
Opposition leaders were outraged. One party leader, Zahava Gal-On, called the move a “mega-stinking maneuver by a prime minister who wants to avoid elections and a desperate opposition chairman facing a crash.”
The centrist Kadima party – the Israeli Parliament’s largest party reeling from defections, a change in leadership and a loss of direction – joined Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition Tuesday to form one of the largest governing blocs in Israel’s history.
The combined 94 seats out of 120 in parliament could theoretically give Netanyahu the power to pass any legislation he wants.
The question is: What does he want?
What’s the strategic goal?
Critics, suffering from whiplash, claim he just wants to stay in power. But others argue he was a clear favorite to win elections anyway.
So if he seeks to achieve a strategic goal, rather than a short-term political advantage, what is it?
Israel faces two major internal issues that had triggered the push for early elections, even though the next national election is not due until October 2013. One is what to do about the confrontation with West Bank settlers who continue to expand their homes. The other is how to make the growing ultraorthodox population serve in the military. That is an especially hot topic since service in the Israel Defense Forces is compulsory for all other Israelis – including women.
Another key question is how to change the political system to eliminate the power of small parties, which has been Israel’s weakness since its foundation in 1948. Concerns about the economy and the widening gap between the rich and poor is another urgent issue.
Many argue that a coherent, stable and large government would be freer to reach critical and tough decisions on these polarizing topics. Of course, in Israel, a strong coalition also translates to being freer to take on the power of the orthodox Jewish parties.
Iran: To attack or not to attack?
Externally, there is one overriding question: Iran. To attack, or not to attack?
Should Israel give American-led sanctions a chance? Or pre-empt the development of an Iranian nuclear weapons program by bombing its nuclear facilities?
Under the terms of the new deal, Shaul Mofaz, who just became the Kadima party’s leader in March, will become a deputy prime minister and Netanyahu’s stand-in when he is out of the country.
Israel’s top three leaders are now all security experts: Netanyahu, is a former special forces fighter; Ehud Barak, the defense minister, is Israel’s most decorated soldier; and Mofaz, who was incidentally born in Iran, is a former army chief and defense minister.
Add Moshe Yaalon, a deputy premier and another former army chief of staff, and Israel’s government could be perceived as increasingly belligerent; or seen from a different perspective, even better able to defend itself.
Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said the new coalition “sends a very strong signal to Tehran, but also to Europe and the United States, that Israel is united and the leadership is capable of dealing with the threats that are there if and when it becomes necessary.”
That is the main result of such a wide coalition: the government should be able to push through almost any plan of action, in any field.
But the question remains: Will Netanyahu use his new overwhelming parliamentary majority to push through much-needed reform? Or just to stay in power? Or, as some fear, to put together wider Israeli support for an attack against Iran?
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