When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined forces last week with the centrist Kadima Party to form one of Israel's largest-ever coalition governments, it appeared to give him maneuvering room to pursue Palestinian peace talks over the objections of his hard-line political base.
But twin efforts by coalition lawmakers last weekend to strengthen the legal status of Jewish settlements suggest that the political fulcrum of Mr. Netanyahu’s government in fact may not have shifted all that dramatically away from stalwarts in his Likud Party who oppose ceding land to the Palestinians on both ideological and theological grounds.
"The prime minister doesn’t intend to advance the peace process,’’ argues Shlomo Molla, a member of parliament from the centrist Kadima Party who said he has misgivings about the unity government and might lead a faction to bolt the coalition if it doesn’t make progress with the Palestinians. "Ideologically, he won’t be able to sign an agreement because he is ideologically linked to Judea and Samaria. The Likud is an extreme right-wing party; and when he signs, they will overthrow him.’’
To be sure, the newly expanded government has sent out mixed signals to the Palestinians during its first week.
On Friday, a panel of politicians from the hard-line wing of the coalition huddled to discuss a law that would retroactively legalize settlement outposts built on land owned by Palestinians – bypassing recent decisions by the Israeli Supreme Court that the government must dismantle those outposts. Then, on Sunday, a group of ministers discussed a government-sponsored bill to annex the settlements – a move that would effectively negate potential negotiations with the Palestinians over a state. Netanyahu ultimately overruled the annexation idea, while the outpost law is still under discussion.
At the same time, however, Netanyahu dispatched his personal envoy to Ramallah over the weekend to deliver a letter to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Israel remains committed to establishing a Palestinian state. And on Monday, he agreed to ease the conditions of Palestinian prisoners and release 100 bodies of militants killed by Israel, as a gesture to Mr. Abbas that he was serious about talks.
Despite that, Israel Waisner-Manor, a political science professor from the University of Haifa, says he expects no major change in government policy on the peace process.
"I doubt that Netanyahu would suddenly become a dove because [Kadima] joined the coalition,’’ he says. "But he also doesn’t want to be perceived as someone who doesn’t seek out negotiations.’’
By bringing in Kadima and its leader, Shaul Mofaz, as a deputy prime minister, Netanyahu boosted his coalition from 66 seats to 94 seats of the 120 member parliament. That means that no single political party can bring down the government on its own, giving Netanyahu new freedom to pursue his avowed support for a Palestinian state. During his first three years in office, he was seen as too dependent on hard-liners to risk his political future on the issue.
Still, the grass roots of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party has seen an influx of religious Jewish settlers, who are opposed to compromise and likely to come out strongly against any signs of pragmatism. Any serious progress toward and agreement with the Palestinians is likely to cause a rebellion among Netanyahu’s core supporters.
Moreover, Kadima and Mr. Mofaz’s influence on policymaking seems limited. Despite the fact that Kadima represents nearly one-third of the coalition, Mofaz is Kadima’s sole representative in the cabinet as well as the "nonet" forum of ministers that Netanyahu consults on foreign policy. And there were apparently no Kadima representatives on the two panels that discussed reinforcing the legal status of the settlements last weekend.
Indeed, one of the first tests of the new unity coalition’s mettle regarding the peace process will come during the summer, when the government faces a court-imposed deadline to evacuate several settler homes in the West Bank erected on Palestinian-owned property.
"We have to look at the outposts very closely, as a weathervane," says a Jerusalem-based foreign diplomat who follows Israeli politics but declined to speak on record. "We can see the real Netanyahu now if he so wishes. He can go whichever way he wants. He has run out of excuses. He gets to describe himself at this point."
If Netanyahu continues to avoid a confrontation with settlers and looks for an alternative solution that leaves the houses in place, as his aides have suggested he will, it will be a sign that he sees himself as very much dependent on the hard-liners in his own party.
If Netanyahu should dismantle the homes at the Givat Haulpana settlement, it will be seen as a sign that he is striking a more independent path on foreign policy and may rely on Kadima despite being imperiled among his core constituency.
But Danny Danon, a Likud parliamentary hard-liner, isn’t worried. "Netanyahu knows that if he wants to keep his base for the next election, he cannot count on Kadima," he says. "If not, he will be dependent on the goodwill of the center left; and he knows that when they have the first opportunity, they will go against him."