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How Netanyahu's 'unity' government may affect Palestinians, Iran

Prime Minister Netanyahu jolted Israeli politics by forming a 'unity' government with the centrist Kadima party, arguing it will promote stability at a time of contentious challenges.

By Josh MitnickCorrespondent / May 8, 2012

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (l.) and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz shake hands before holding a joint press conference announcing the new coalition government in Jerusalem, Tuesday, May 8. Netanyahu said Tuesday his new coalition government will promote 'a responsible peace process' with the Palestinians.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

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Tel Aviv

A stunning overhaul in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could produce progress on the peace process with the Palestinians but also enhance Israeli threats to attack Iran’s nuclear program.

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Late last night, the parliament was pushing forward legislation to dissolve itself and move up general elections by a year to this September. But in what Haaretz newspaper labeled an "atomic bomb," Mr. Netanyahu and opposition leader Shaul Mofaz of the centrist Kadima party instead paved the way for a national unity coalition, something that Netanyahu says will stabilize the government for the next year and a half so it can deal with reforms at home and security threats abroad.

By bolstering his majority from just over half to more than three-quarters of the parliament, Netanyahu now has more latitude in which to pursue a two-state solution and is less beholden to his core constituency of hardliners like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Jewish settlers. Kadima, for its part, benefits by gaining much greater clout at a time when polls indicated it could face a drubbing in any upcoming elections.

“A major shift has happened in Israel’s government this night. Israel’s government is no longer a right-wing government,” says Amit Segal, a political commentator for Channel 2 news. “In the long term, it will enable Mr. Netanyahu to try to reach an agreement with the Palestinians without fearing the reaction of Mr. Lieberman or the right wingers of his party.”

Netanyahu’s big-tent government also gives him more political cover if he chooses to be more aggressive against Iran because of the presence of Mr. Mofaz, a former army chief of staff and former defense minister who has been critical of Israel's stance on Iran, in the decisionmaking process, say analysts.

“A unity government reduces the likelihood of criticism of the government should an operation go wrong,” wrote Ron Ben Yishai, a military affairs columnist for Ynet.com news website. “It strengthens Israel’s deterrence and enhances its decisionmaking ability of the leaders on foreign policy and security issues, of which Iran is foremost.”

Mr. Netanyahu seemed to be headed toward sure reelection if parliament dissolved, according to polls. But the deal, which snubs his core hardline constituencies, sends a message that he wants greater flexilibity to address problems that have roiled Israel in recent months, from international concern over Iran to whether Israel's ultrareligious should no longer receive exemptions from military service.

Israeli analysts also suggested that Netanyahu backed down from elections now because he fears that the grassroots of his party has been overrun by Jewish settlers. The prime minister denied that suggestion.

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