When Israeli President Shimon Peres named Benjamin Netanyahu to form Israel’s next government last week, one key question about the government was answered. Many others, however, were left unresolved.
Israeli President Shimon Peres officially asked Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu last week to try to form a coalition government. [Isranet photo]
Unlike Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni, who had the opportunity to become prime minister last fall but could not form a coalition, the Likud’s Netanyahu undoubtedly will succeed in assembling a coalition government and assuming the post of prime minister.
What will governing partners look like?
Netanyahu has said he wants the broadest possible coalition, and has publicly called on Labor (13 seats) and Kadima (28 seats) to join him in a national unity government. But Livni appears to be leaning against joining a Netanyahu-led government, and Labor’s Ehud Barak has indicated that the party wants to rebuild itself in the opposition.
If all else fails, Netanyahu can bank on having right-wing partners to form the necessary 61-seat majority for his coalition in the 120-seat Knesset: Yisrael Beiteinu (15 seats), Shas (11), and smaller parties including National Union (4), the Jewish Home (3) and United Torah Judaism (5), which would would line up behind Likud (27 seats) – as long as Netanyahu promises the religious parties goodies like welfare and education funding.
But such a government (65 seats) would hamstring Netanyahu in peacemaking efforts. Yisrael Beiteinu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, said a year ago when he pulled out of the coalition with Kadima that his goal was to stop the Annapolis peace process with the Palestinians. His stance has not changed, leaving Netanyahu with little wiggle room to advance that process. Shas would bolt the coalition if Netanyahu discussed Jerusalem with the Palestinians. And any number of those parties might block Israel-Syria peacemaking, which Netanyahu pursued clandestinely during his tenure as prime minister from 1996 to 1999.
While Netanyahu is no dove, he’s not as hawkish as these potential coalition partners, a fact that partly explains why he would prefer to have a broader coalition, one that includes his major rival, Livni, and Kadima’s 28 seats.For Livni, now that Netanyahu has bested her in the contest to form the next government, the question is whether she should join them or fight them.
The argument can go both ways.
On the one hand, Livni wants no part of a government that is not committed to peacemaking with the Palestinians, which has been her primary focus for the past year and a half. She fears that any coalition with the likes of Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu would make the pursuit of peace impossible, and Kadima’s presence in the government would serve as little more than a fig leaf for hawkish policy.
Moreover, staying in the opposition would give Livni a chance to build Kadima from the outside as a party devoted to peace and an alternative to a government that could be on a collision course with Washington, not to mention the Arab world. Such a government, she must figure, would be unlikely to last a full term.
However, if Livni refuses to partner with Netanyahu in a coalition government, she pretty much guarantees Israel’s next government will be unabashedly right wing. Instead, she could join Likud and possibly mitigate the government’s hawkishness and give Netanyahu more room to manoeuvre when it comes to Arab-Israel peacemaking. That would be the case especially if Labor joined the government, too.
Furthermore, given the unique threats facing Israel, especially from Iran, the country could use a national unity government.
So for Livni, the choice may be between party and country.
Coalition aside, the other major unanswered question now is where does Netanyahu intend to lead Israel? With the old distinctions between right and left no longer in force, the question on the Palestinian front is how fast Israel will push for a two-state solution. Livni believes the window of opportunity is closing, whereas Netanyahu believes the Palestinians are not yet ready for their own state. During the campaign, Netanyahu was purposely vague about his vision for a two-state solution – if, indeed, he has one.
With Israel facing the prospect of a nuclear Iran, serious threats on its southern border (Hamas in Gaza) and northern border (Hezbollah in Lebanon), and the prospect of a crippling economic crisis, this is no doubt a pivotal moment in Israeli history.
The question is where Israel goes from here.
In related developments, Netanyahu met with Barak Monday morning in Jerusalem in an effort to recruit the dovish Labor party for his future coalition, but to no avail.
Barak rejected the invitation, saying: “The voters’ verdict has sent the Labor party into the opposition, and I told Netanyahu that we will serve as a responsible, serious and constructive opposition.”
Livni said she and Netanyahu made no progress in their late-night meeting Sunday.
She said Kadima is still headed for opposition. On Sunday, Netanyahu and Livni agreed to meet again for talks in the next few days, but stressed that no coalition negotiations are underway.
“I will be taking Kadima into the opposition,” Livni told reporters Sunday night after their first meeting since the Feb. 10 election. “Netanyahu has asked for another meeting, and I agreed. As far as I am concerned, this meeting has changed nothing.”
She said there are still “profound differences” between the two parties’ positions on the peace process and talks with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu said he will press on with his efforts to establish a broad coalition, and that he will meet with Livni and Barak again later this week.
Briefing reporters, Netanyahu said he told Livni, “I will continue to try to form a national unity government to counter the threats facing Israel. This is the will of the people.”
Netanyahu listed the threats facing the country, adding that “it is incumbent upon us that we unite all of our forces for this common goal.”
He also hinted at the gaps between Kadima and Likud, but added, “I believe we can overcome these differences with a little goodwill. However, if Kadima tries to scupper a unity government, it will find a way to do so. We can and must find a common path… In the end, unity will prevail and we will find a common path.”
Earlier Sunday, Livni declared that she intended to remain in opposition, and her parliamentary faction voted to back her in “upholding the principles with which Kadima went to the voters and ensuring their realization as a condition for any entry into the government.”
Before the meeting, Netanyahu’s associates said he planned to make Kadima a generous offer, including two of the top three cabinet portfolios – defence, finance and foreign affairs – and full partnership in drafting the government guidelines.
They also said he would promise to continue final-status negotiations with the Palestinians. That is a key issue for Livni, who was in charge of these talks as foreign minister in the outgoing government.
With files from Ha’aretz.