Netanyahu surprise gives Israel grand coalition (REUTERS) By Allyn Fisher-Ilan JERSALEM, ISRAEL 05/08/12 12:29pm EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a unity
government on Tuesday in a surprise move that could give him a freer
hand to attack Iran´s nuclear facilities and seek peace with the
The coalition deal, negotiated secretly over the past days and sealed
at a private meeting overnight, means the centrist Kadima party will
hook up with Netanyahu´s rightist coalition, creating a majority of
94 of parliament´s 120 legislators.
The coalition, which replaces plans announced just two days earlier
for a snap election in September, will be one of the biggest in
"This government is good for security, good for the economy and good
for the people of Israel," Netanyahu told a joint news conference
with Kadima´s leader, Shaul Mofaz.
The new coalition would focus on sharing out the duty of military
conscription among all Israelis, redrawing the national budget and
advancing electoral reform, he said.
Ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition had opposed plans to extend
conscription to their supporters, who are now exempt.
"Lastly it is to try to advance a responsible peace process ... Not
all has been agreed but we have a very strong basis for continued
action," the prime minister said, adding that he hoped the
Palestinians would "spot the opportunity and come sit with us for
"Of course one of the important issues is Iran," Netanyahu added in
response to a question.
Environment Minister Gilad Erdan said the accord would help build
support for potential action against Iran´s atomic program, which
Israel views as an existential threat.
"An election wouldn´t stop Iran´s nuclear program. When a decision is
taken to attack or not, it is better to have a broad political front,
that unites the public," he told Israel Radio.
A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel
to "use the opportunity provided by the expansion of its coalition
government" to expedite a peace accord.
"This requires an immediate halt to all settlement activity
throughout the Palestinian Territories," spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah
said. "The new coalition government needs to be a coalition of peace
and not a coalition for war."
Peace talks have been suspended for 18 months in a dispute over
Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank and Palestinians
say they cannot resume unless such construction is frozen. Netanyahu
has called for talks without preconditions.
"Entering peace negotiations was an iron condition for forming the
unity government," Mofaz said.
The coalition accord says the new administration will "work towards
the resumption of the peace process and promoting talks with the
But it also noted "the importance of maintaining defensible borders",
a phrase Netanyahu has used in the past to deflect Palestinian
demands for extensive Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank,
territory captured in a 1967 war.
SIGNAL TO IRAN
Under the coalition accord, Mofaz, a former defense minister, will be
named vice premier in the new government. He took over leadership of
the Kadima party in March from Tzipi Livni.
As deputy prime minister in a former Kadima-headed government in
2008, Mofaz was among the first Israeli officials to publicly moot
the possibility of an attack on Iran.
But the Iranian-born Mofaz has been more circumspect while in
opposition, saying Israel should not hasten to break ranks with world
powers that are trying to pressure Iran through sanctions and
Gerald Steinberg, political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel
Aviv, said the coalition deal "sends a very strong signal to Tehran,
but also to Europe and the United States, that Israel is united and
the leadership is capable of dealing with the threats that are there
if and when it becomes necessary".
Israeli officials say the next year may be crucial in seeing whether
Iran will curb its nuclear plans in the face of international
condemnation and Western sanctions. Iran will discuss its nuclear
program with major powers on May 23.
Israel has regularly hinted it will strike the Islamic republic if
Tehran does not pull back. On Tuesday, Iranian foreign ministry
spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast dismissed the threats of attack
Iran regularly rejects Israeli and Western accusations that it is
working on developing a nuclear bomb, saying its program is focused
on generating electricity and other peaceful projects. Israel is
widely assumed to have the Middle East´s only nuclear arsenal.
The next election was due in October 2013 but Netanyahu had pushed
this month for an early poll after divisions emerged in his coalition
over the new military conscription law. Parliament was preparing to
dissolve itself and clear the decks for a September 4 ballot while
the backroom talks with Kadima were under way.
"When it turned out it was possible to set up the biggest government
in Israel´s history ... I thought we could restore stability without
elections, so I decided to set up a broad national unity government,"
The accord stunned the political establishment and drew swift
condemnation from the centre-left Labour party, which had been touted
in opinion polls to be on course for a resurgence at the expense of
"This is a pact of cowards and the most contemptible and preposterous
zigzag in Israel´s political history," Labour party leader Shelly
Yachimovich was quoted as saying in the media, where commentators
hailed Netanyahu´s political prowess.
Kadima, with 28 seats, will add significant weight to the coalition,
but it remains uncertain how it will get along with religious and
ultra-right parties also in the cabinet.
Inter-government relations are likely to be tested swiftly over the
issue of settlement building after the high court ordered the
government on Monday to demolish five apartment buildings in a Jewish
settlement in the occupied West Bank.
Many Netanyahu supporters want him to adopt legislation to legalize
settlements, such as the Ulpana apartments, which a court has ruled
were built on privately owned Palestinian land.
It is not clear if Kadima would support such a move, which would draw
international condemnation on Israel.
(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; writing by Jeffrey Heller;
Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Philippa Fletcher) (© Thomson Reuters
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