Israel´s unity deal fuels talk of moderate shift (LA TIMES) By Edmund Sanders JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 05/09/12)
LOS ANGELES TIMES
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With the Kadima party in his coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu can pursue a more moderate path on issues such as peace
talks and Iran, analysts say.
JERUSALEM ó The surprise unity government announced Tuesday by
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has many observers
predicting that the reformed coalition will embark on a more moderate
path, including reopening talks with Palestinians and softening
rhetoric on attacking Iran.
The addition of the centrist Kadima party to what has been called one
of Israel´s most right-wing coalition governments gives Netanyahu a
comfortable 78% majority in the parliament, lessening the clout of
small right-wing parties and factions.
Those parties, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman´s
nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox Shas, have
dominated the government agenda for three years, pushing to expand
West Bank settlements, fighting efforts to demolish unauthorized
outposts and passing laws that Arab Israelis say restrict their civil
Some Israeli politicians predict that the hastily arranged deal will
give Netanyahu the breathing space he needs to pursue more moderate
policies, which those close to him say reflect his personal views.
They say he has been unable to pursue them out of fear the issues
would break apart his coalition.
"This gives Netanyahu more liberty," said Zalman Shoval, a foreign
policy advisor for the prime minister´s Likud Party and former
ambassador to the U.S. "He´s basically a centrist."
At a news conference Tuesday, Netanyahu said the new coalition will
enable him to tackle pressing issues, including pursuing
a "responsible peace process." Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz vowed
to "change the agenda."
Israel´s right-wing politicians expressed alarm. Lawmaker Danny
Danon, who leads a conservative faction within Likud, expressed fear
that Netanyahu will move to freeze settlement construction in the
West Bank, a key Palestinian demand for restarting peace talks.
"This is going to push the government to the center and to the left,
and I am going to lead the effort to make sure the government
maintains the values of the nationalist camp," he said, adding that
settlers "are very worried about this arrangement and fear the
government will not support them."
But Danon also predicted that Kadima would quit the unity government
as soon as the centrist party rebuilds some of its popularity. Recent
polls showed that Kadima would have lost half its seats if early
elections announced by Netanyahu on Sunday were held Sept. 4. The
coalition deal pushes elections back to next year.
Mofaz, who for weeks had denounced Netanyahu´s leadership and
repeatedly sworn that he would not join the government, defended the
deal Tuesday. He said joining the government will give him a platform
to push for renewed Palestinian peace talks and a law drafting ultra-
Orthodox young people into the military, something opposed by
religious parties but popular among Israeli voters.
The Kadima leader, who is expected to serve in Israel´s powerful
security Cabinet, may also put the brakes on Netanyahu´s public
threats to attack Iran´s nuclear program. In recent television
interviews, Mofaz said the U.S. should lead any military strike, and
criticized Netanyahu for "inflating" the immediate threat posed by
However, analysts said that a unity government would provide
Netanyahu with broader domestic support should he decide to strike
David Makovsky, a veteran Mideast analyst at the Washington Institute
for Near East Policy, noted that Mofaz previously was more accepting
of the idea of military action against Tehran. Should Netanyahu and
Defense Minister Ehud Barak decide they want to bomb the nuclear
installations, "it´s not clear he´ll be the most vehement opponent,"
The deal benefits both Netanyahu and Mofaz, Makovsky said. The prime
minister avoids the distractions of an election this year,
neutralizes the political threat from the moderate Mofaz and
addresses the issue of his dependence on right-wing coalition
partners hurting Israel when it comes to foreign governments,
including the United States. For Mofaz, whose bloc has been
relatively small, the agreement grants "him and his party a new lease
on life," the analyst said.
Some experts cautioned that the jury is out on whether the unity
government will set Netanyahu on a more moderate course, even though
President Obama and other global leaders might pressure him to move
in that direction. In recent years, many close to the prime minister
have predicted he would make a bold political shift, only to be
disappointed when Netanyahu remained loyal to his right-wing
"It´s by no means clear that he wants to do so," editor David
Horovitz wrote Tuesday in the Times of Israel, an Internet-based
newspaper. "But he has room for maneuver now if he wishes to use it.
And the Americans and the rest of the international community will be
well aware of the fact."
A key point of friction between Netanyahu and Obama has been Israel´s
refusal to halt settlement construction and make concessions designed
to bring Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Netanyahu
supporters had argued that the prime minister would be open to such
moves but his more right-wing supporters would not permit it.
Answers should be more clear in coming months as the coalition faces
several challenges, including the looming court-ordered eviction of
several unauthorized West Bank settlements, the expiration in July of
a law exempting religious students from the draft and adoption of a
Palestinian leaders reacted with skepticism. They have long
maintained that, despite the rhetoric, there is little difference
between Israel´s rival parties on the issues of settlement
construction and peace talks.
While in the opposition, Mofaz called for the creation of an interim
Palestinian state on 60% of the land in the West Bank. The plan was
rejected by Palestinians.
Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil abu Rudaineh on Tuesday called
on Israel "to use the opportunity of the expansion in the government
coalition to speed up efforts to reach a peace agreement."
The resurgent Labor Party could be a short-term loser in the unity
deal because polls predicted it would have become Israel´s second-
biggest party in the Knesset, or parliament, after the now-canceled
But it also raises the profile of Labor Chairwoman Shelly
Yachimovich, who takes over as the opposition leader. She said
Tuesday that the new coalition put political interests above ideology
and predicted it would be a boon to her party´s ability to present
itself as an alternative.
The deal, she said dismissively, was "the most ridiculous zigzag in
Israel´s political history." Times staff writer Paul Richter in
Washington contributed to this report. (Copyright © 2012 Los Angeles
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