JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A quiet word from a visitor paying a condolence call to Benjamin Netanyahu may have been the seed that sprouted into a surprise Israeli unity government deal.
Last week, the prime minister was sitting “shiva” a seven-day Jewish period of mourning, for his 102-year-old father, when Shaul Mofaz, head of the centrist Kadima party, came to Netanyahu’s Jerusalem apartment to express his sympathies.
After a handshake, the muted conversation between the political rivals touched on the possibility of a governing partnership, said a legislator privy to details of the coalition-building contacts.
“It’s not that they were talking politics,” said the lawmaker. But he said Mofaz and Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, exchanged a relevant word or two -- “and last night, it was done”.
Israelis had gone to bed Monday night certain that parliament, at Netanyahu’s request, would vote to dissolve itself and schedule a new general election on September 4, more than a year ahead of time.
But while deputies debated the motion in a curiously drawn-out overnight session, behind the scenes, Netanyahu and Mofaz concluded an agreement to form a government of national unity that will control 94 of parliament’s 120 seats.
All but a select few Kadima and Likud legislators were kept out of the loop. One Mofaz ally, Kadima lawmaker Otniel Schneller, told Reuters: “I was totally taken by surprise.”
Kadima’s 28 parliamentary seats strengthen Netanyahu’s hand should his religious coalition partners rebel over legislation to end an exemption from military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews that is due in the coming months.
Opinion polls show his party would have done well in an election, which the government was at pains to point out would not have weakened Israel’s resolve to confront Iran over its nuclear program, with air strikes if it deemed them necessary.
“But when it became clear to me that I could form a very broad government, I saw I could preserve stability without going to elections,” Netanyahu told a joint news conference with Mofaz on Tuesday at which he said Iran remained an important issue.
Netanyahu’s political coup also shook potential rebels in his own Likud, where ultranationalist pro-settler members had challenged him at a party convention on Sunday over choosing candidates to run in an early election.
He indicated on Tuesday that talks had begun during the mourning period, which ended on Sunday, when he was closeted in his apartment.
“We started discussing (a deal with Kadima) concretely ... four or five days ago,” Netanyahu said at the news conference.
Israeli media reports said Defence Minister Ehud Barak was also at the Monday night meeting between Netanyahu and Mofaz in the prime minister’s official residence, along with a clutch of advisers.
Barak had good reason to push for an agreement -- opinion polls showed his small “Atzmaut” party would not have won a single parliamentary seat in an early election.
Mofaz’s Kadima party was also forecast to do badly. Opinion polls showed it would have dropped from 28 seats to just 11 with Mofaz, a dour-looking former defence chief, newly in charge.
“It would have been irresponsible for me to have told (Netanyahu) ‘No’,” said Mofaz, citing policies Kadima could now promote to ease the economic burden on the middle class and resume peace talks with the Palestinians stalled since 2010.
Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; editing by Philippa Fletcher