Netanyahu emerges as strongman with unity deal (AP) Associated Press) By JOSEF FEDERMAN and DAN PERRY JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 05/08/12 2:43 pm ET)
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JERUSALEM Now backed by a parliamentary supermajority, Benjamin
Netanyahu has tremendous room to maneuver on Israel´s most pressing
issues: peace with the Palestinians, possible war with Iran, and the
growing rift at home between religious and secular Jews.
The stunning partnership with the opposition Kadima party, announced
overnight Tuesday just as the nation was expecting him to call early
elections, means the premier if he so desires can compromise with
the Palestinians without being brought down by hard-line nationalists
who had controlled his fate.
"A broad national unity government is good for security, good for the
economy, good for the people of Israel," Netanyahu declared at a news
conference with Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, his new deputy prime
With his coalition divided over a flurry of domestic issues,
Netanyahu had declared in recent days that he would hold a
parliamentary election in September, more than a year ahead of
schedule. But as parliament convened late Monday to move toward
elections, he and Mofaz were secretly wrapping up their power-sharing
deal. Israelis were stunned to wake up Tuesday to a new political
Netanyahu now heads a 94-member coalition, one of the broadest
alliances in the 120-seat parliament in Israeli history putting him
in a strong position to push forward with new initiatives.
While Netanyahu emerges as a winner in that sense, the outcome is
also a life raft for Mofaz. Netanyahu had been widely expected to win
the election by securing a majority of seats for his Likud and the
religious and nationalist parties that are its natural but pesky
allies. The opposition center-left bloc was behind in the polls and
appeared headed toward splintering into several medium-sized parties
For Israelis who felt alienated by the Netanyahu government and
they were legion among the country´s various elites there is now
the prospect of a more moderate leadership no longer dependent on the
At the news conference, Netanyahu boasted of bringing "stability" to
Israel´s volatile political system, where governments rarely serve
their full terms. The revamped coalition is expected to sit through
the end of the parliamentary term in October 2013.
Together, he and Mofaz pledged an unspecified reform of the political
system, to protect the economy and to tackle the contentious issue of
draft exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox men numbering in the
tens of thousands. The Supreme Court has ordered an end to the
exemptions, and divisions between secular and religious parties over
the issue had threatened to tear apart the outgoing coalition.
No longer dependent on the smaller factions, Netanyahu now has far
more leeway to tackle these issues, as well as sensitive foreign
policy matters such as Mideast peace and the Iranian nuclear program.
Peace talks with the Palestinians have been frozen throughout
Netanyahu´s three-year term due to disagreements over Jewish
settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians, who claim both areas for a future state, have said
they won´t return to the negotiating table without a settlement
freeze. Netanyahu says talks should resume without any preconditions.
Netanyahu vowed to pursue a "responsible peace process," adding: "We
are prepared to engage them at any time, any place."
While Netanyahu showed no sign of bending Tuesday, he has shown
tentative signs of change in recent years.
Shortly after taking office, Netanyahu abandoned years of hard-line
ideology and endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state alongside
And last month he adopted a central argument of his opponents in
saying peace is essential for Israel because the alternative would be
absorbing the millions of Palestinians in the occupied lands and
destroying Israel´s Jewish character.
The Palestinians have dismissed Netanyahu´s comments as rhetoric and
remain deeply skeptical. Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, voiced hope that the new Israeli
government will "use the opportunity of the widened coalition to work
to achieve peace with the Palestinian people."
The addition of Mofaz, a former military chief of staff and defense
minister who also heads the largest party in parliament, could give
Netanyahu the necessary cover to offer a new initiative.
Mofaz, who has also warned about the demographic threat faced by
Israel, said he has "some ideas" on how to move forward with the
Palestinians. Mofaz said he favors an interim agreement on border and
security arrangements before resolving other outstanding issues.
"This is the direction that the state of Israel should negotiate with
the Palestinians, in order to achieve interim, before permanent,
agreement," he said.
Likewise, Mofaz has criticized Netanyahu´s approach to Iran.
Israel, like much of the West, believes that Iran is trying to
develop a nuclear weapon a charge Iran denies.
Netanyahu considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be a lethal threat to
Israel´s very existence, and has repeatedly hinted that he is
prepared to authorize an attack on Iran´s nuclear installations if he
believes that international diplomacy and economic sanctions are
Last month, Mofaz criticized Netanyahu´s tough rhetoric and said it
was actually weakening Israel. He described the Iranian nuclear
program as a global threat and said Israel should coordinate any
attack with the U.S. Mofaz´s influence could reduce the chances of a
unilateral Israeli strike, at least in the short term.
Netanyahu said he has consulted with Mofaz on Iran for several years.
He said the talks were "very serious" and would continue to
be "serious and responsible."
Analysts said the alliance between Mofaz and Netanyahu could form a
potent combination on Iran, with Mofaz adding a needed dose of public
Reuven Pedatzur, a commentator on military affairs, said Netanyahu
can do "whatever he wants" because there is no real opposition. "He
just has to convince Mofaz to agree with him," he said.
Kadima had resisted joining the government when former Foreign
Minister Tzipi Livni was at the party´s helm, because she did not
think Netanyahu was serious about reaching a peace deal with the
Palestinians. But that hurdle was cleared when Mofaz ousted Livni in
Kadima´s leadership vote last month. Netanyahu said talks with Kadima
had gone on for several days but was not more specific.
Mofaz told the news conference that it had been a "mistake" to sit in
While Netanyahu, who has surged in opinion polls, approached the
negotiations from a position of strength, Mofaz is in a struggle for
Surveys have predicted Kadima would drop to about a dozen seats in
parliament if elections were held, from its current 28.
The new deal gives Mofaz a year and a half to rehabilitate his party,
or possibly merge with Likud. Kadima broke away from Likud in 2005,
and many members, including Mofaz, have their political roots in
Shelly Yachimovich, head of the opposition Labor Party, said she was
furious over the last-minute reversal, expressing anger particularly
at Mofaz, who was recently quoted as calling Netanyahu a "liar," yet
found himself awkwardly sharing the stage with the prime minister on
Tuesday as his deputy.
"I feel revulsion, loathing ... and a sensation that a line has been
crossed," she said. Yachimovich is likely to emerge as parliament´s
new opposition leader.
The news also sidelines political newcomer Yair Lapid, a popular
former TV anchorman who has been faring well in opinion polls. Lapid
must now wait until the next election to enter parliament. (© 2012
The Associated Press 05/08/12)
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