Netanyahu bags a centrist

Israel’s political system is not one to admire in every respect, but one thing Australia could learn from it is that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have a new government in place a couple of days after the election. The Israeli election was almost a month ago, but prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu still seems to be some way off finalising the shape of a governing coalition.

Yesterday, however, came a major step forward. Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and leader of the centrist Hatnuah (“Movement”) party, has agreed to join in government. Netanyahu promised the deal would deliver a “broad and stable government that unites the people,” while Livni denied that she had sold out her beliefs.

Hatnuah only has six seats in the new parliament, or Knesset, so this is still a long way short of a majority. But it’s critical for Netanyahu. His “natural” coalition, as one might call it, of his own Likud-Beiteinu, the ultra-orthodox parties and the far-right Jewish Home, has only a bare majority: 61 seats out of 120. To give himself a margin for error he needs one of the centre parties as well, and Hatnuah fits the bill.

The largest of the centre parties is newcomer Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, but Lapid has proved a difficult negotiating partner because he is set on introducing conscription for ultra-orthodox students. Netanyahu can’t go there, since he needs the ultra-orthodox parties – unless of course he were to go the whole hog and try to form a centrist grand coalition, a move he seems to have no inclination for at all (and where his own backbenchers probably wouldn’t follow him in any case).

Now that he has Livni on board, Netanyahu just needs to make sure of Jewish Home. Its leader, Naftali Bennett, has been working in conjunction with Lapid, but it’s hard to see how he could hold out from a new Netanyahu government. As Yossi Verter wrote the other day in Haaretz, “For Lapid, there is life in the opposition, but Bennett won’t survive there. His public would never forgive him if he were the one who prevented Netanyahu from forming a right-wing government and thereby brought about new elections, in which the left would likely do better.”

So the deal with Livni is not really a move to the centre, but rather serves as cover for the right-wing coalition that was always likely to emerge.

That’s not to say that Livni will get nothing in return. Netanyahu has promised that she will be justice minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, having made the resumption of peace talks the centrepiece of her campaign. But there is a big gap between holding talks and reaching any sort of agreement. Noam Sheizaf has it right when he says “even the settlers don’t oppose peace talks … since they assume they will result in nothing.”

Livni will also present a more friendly face towards western leaders, and may be a voice for moderation within the cabinet on a number of domestic issues. To the extent that she is allowed to have real influence, Israel may look less like a pariah state than it has in recent years.

But the essence of the new government will be Netnyahu’s parliamentary dependence on the hard right. As long as that remains unchanged, peace will be a distant prospect.



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