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Opinion

Broad coalition in Israel shows Netanyahu's centrist colors

By bringing the centrist Kadima party into his coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can address some of the more fundamental problems Israel faces – including the moribund peace process with Palestinians – without a veto threat from the far right parties.

By Niv Elis / May 10, 2012

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 May 8. Op-ed contributor Niv Elis writes that Netanyahu, without the baggage of religious parties, could 'accede to the Palestinian pre-condition that he freeze settlement activity.'

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

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Tel Aviv

Israel woke up to an astounding new political reality Tuesday morning, one in which religious and far-right parties had lost considerable influence.

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Having gone to sleep with the certainty that the parliament, or Knesset, would dissolve itself in a late-night vote, once again felling the government and leading to early elections on Sept. 4, the surprise of discovering a newly formed unity government deal in the morning was palpable.

Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, just months into his new role atop the centrist Kadima party, decided to join the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the eleventh hour, creating one of the largest unity governments in the nation’s history (only two have surpassed it). In a country where governments reach the 61-vote coalition threshold by the skin of their teeth, controlling 94 out of 120 seats – over 75 percent – is historic indeed. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Many Israelis, especially Kadima voters opposed to Mr. Netanyahu, were too caught up in the seeming political sliminess of the deal to grasp the opportunities a new political order affords.

Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, whose party was polling at a distant second for the expected election, called it a “covenant of cowards.” Respected journalist and political neophyte Yair Lapid, who will have to now wait 17 months before his newly formed  party can enter the Knesset, said it was a “disgusting political alliance.” On Facebook, video clips of Mr. Mofaz repeatedly calling Netanyahu an untrustworthy liar resurfaced, alongside Mofaz’s own resolute promises not to join a Netanyahu government.

These critics miss the point.

Setting aside the broken promises and heated rhetoric that have come to characterize the dysfunction of Israeli politics, the unity deal will create a unique moment of centrist, political stability in the government. It will allow the government to address some of the more fundamental problems the state faces – including the moribund peace process with Palestinians – without a veto threat from the far-right parties, who until now could topple the government if they bolted the coalition.

While the 94-seat-strong super-coalition is unlikely to remain fully intact until October 2013, when regularly scheduled elections are planned, there is a good chance it will survive with more than 61 seats. The reason is that centrist parties – Netanyahu’s Likud, Kadima, and Ehud Barak’s Independence, which broke away from Labor last year – comprise 60 seats of the coalition in and of themselves. They need only one other party, or one other member of the Knesset to pass their laws.

With those numbers, they have a giant buffer to move ahead with tough proposals supported by most Israelis, even if right-wing parties like Yisrael Beiteinu or religious parties like Shas object, and drop out of the new coalition.

The scale of this political power is clear in the ambitious priorities Netanyahu and Mofaz laid out in their agenda. In the next 17 months, they said at the press conference announcing their agreement, they hope to address four difficult, controversial issues.

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