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.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
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.

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.

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 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.

It's all about stability

Speaking at a press conference, Netanyahu defended the sudden about-face as motivated by his desire to bolster government stability rather than head toward early elections.

He said the new government’s priorities would be domestic policy, such as new legislation on military service exemptions and electoral reform. He added that the unity government would also seek to advance “a responsible peace process,” but still laid the blame for the 18-month impasse in talks on the Palestinians.

The Palestinians cautiously welcomed the change in government. A spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas called on the Israeli government not to miss the new “opportunity” to revive the peace process.

A senior Palestinian official said that the new government should be able to reinstitute a freeze in settlement expansion and reach an understanding with the Palestinians about the ground rules for peace talks.

“We need to see the seriousness of the coalition about Palestinians,”  says Muhammed Shtayyeh, a Palestinian negotiator. “We and the Israeli leadership haven’t been reading from the same book…. We need a coalition to regenerate hope for the Palestinian people and to show seriousness.”

Why Kadima joined forces

Mofaz, who will have only limited influence as a minister without portfolio, said that restarting peace talks was an “iron foundation” of the new coalition agreement. As the leader of the parliamentary opposition, his party has criticized Netanyahu’s government for the breakdown of the peace talks.

Several years ago, he pushed a plan to establish a Palestinian state with temporary borders on 60 percent of the West Bank as a prelude to talks to reach a permanent solution to the conflict.

Mofaz has also staked out positions on Iran that have been at odds with Mr. Netanyahu. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, he said the Iranians have not reached a point where they can threaten Israel with a nuclear weapon, and that such a threat is not as dangerous for Israel as the Palestinian conflict.

The first test for the new unity government with the Palestinians will come this summer, when Israel faces a Supreme Court deadline to dismantle an illegal settler outpost. Until now, Netanyahu has been trying to evade the order so as not to upset political allies.  

Still, even though Mofaz’s presence s likely to moderate government policies, some observers expressed doubt that Netanyahu and the Palestinians will get very far in talks. Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Hebrew University, notes that because Israel’s previous center-left wing government was unable to cut a peace deal with the Palestinians in 2008, the new center-right wing coalition is highly unlikely to do so.

“There’s no way that in the next year this government is going to reach an agreement that previous more dovish government couldn’t do,” he says. “They are going back to negotiations about negotiations.”

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