Jewish World Review May 17, 2012 / 25 Iyar, 5772
Netanyahu's 'centrist' coalition is already proving it's anything but
By Joshua Mitnick
A new unity government in Israel was expected to give the country's PM more flexibility on Palestinian peace talks. But moves on Jewish suburbs at Judea and Samaria suggest otherwise
EL AVIV (TCSM) 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 hardline 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.''
On Friday, a panel of politicians from the hardline wing of the coalition huddled to discuss a law that would retroactively legalize settlement outposts. 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 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 the 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 hardliners to risk his political future on the issue.
Still, the grassroots of Netanyahu's own Likud Party has seen an influx of religious Jewish settlers. Any serious progress toward and agreement with the Palestinians is likely to cause a rebellion among Netanyahu's core supporters.
"I don't see Netanyahu getting close to the even the minimal conditions of [Abbas],'' says Akiva Eldar, a political columnist for the liberal Haaretz newspaper. "They are negotiating with themselves.''
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.
"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 is sees himself as very much dependent on the hardliners in his own party.
If Netanyahu should dismantle the homes at the Givat Ha'ulpana 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 hardliner, 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 will have the first opportunity, they will go against him."
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© 2012, The Christian Science Monitor