Can Bibi draw Livni into his government?
JERUSALEM — After winning the mandate to form a new government, Benjamin Netanyahu faces a seemingly intractable political paradox.
Netanyahu owes his mandate to the support of 65 right-wing Knesset members, but the last thing the Likud Party leader wants is a coalition of right-wing parties. He knows that a hard-line government in which Likud is weighed down by right-wing ideologues will not sit well with the international community. Netanyahu remembers how his first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, was undercut by a similar right-wing constellation.
The question is, will Netanyahu be able to make the huge ideological leap necessary to bring Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadima party into his coalition?
Livni is demanding that Netanyahu accept the principle of two states for two peoples in negotiations with the Palestinians. So far, Netanyahu has been unwilling to do that.
Another problem is the size of the coalition. If Netanyahu brings in Livni and keeps the right-wingers, he would have an unwieldy coalition of 93 of the 120 Knesset members. To pare it to more manageable proportions, he would have to drop either Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, for a coalition of 78, or all or most of the religious parties. The latter would reduce his coalition to 70 or 81 if it includes the Orthodox Sephardic Shas party, to which Netanyahu reportedly is beholden.
In 1988, the Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir found himself in a similar position. He jettisoned prior agreements with the right-wingers to form a national unity government with Labor, famously telling the hawkish Hatechiya’s Yuval Neeman, who had a signed coalition document, to frame it and hang it on the wall.
Whether Netanyahu will be that single-minded and ruthless remains to be seen.
If he sticks with the right-wingers, Israel could be in for a rough ride overseas. The Europeans already have expressed two major concerns: that a narrow right-wing government will spell an end to peacemaking with the Palestinians, and that Lieberman’s presence in the government could threaten Israeli democracy. Lieberman has proposed requiring loyalty oaths in a bid to curtail Israeli Arab political power.
For the time being, the new American administration is taking a wait-and-see attitude. But U.S. officials have been re-emphasizing Washington’s commitment to a two-state solution.
On a visit to Israel last week that also included a trip to Gaza, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, hinted that there could be U.S. pressure down the road. On the key issues, Kerry said, it would be up to Israelis to decide, but that the United States would try to “steer” its ally in a direction that was good for Israel and the international community.
Israeli critics of Netanyahu and the right-wingers’ refusal to accept the two-state approach is much blunter.
“No Israeli leader will be able to leave Ben Gurion Airport without a commitment to two states,” Kadima’s Haim Ramon declared.
Netanyahu, however, has consistently opposed the idea. In 2002 he led an open rebellion against then-Likud leader Ariel Sharon for embracing the two-state idea. Instead, Netanyahu emphasizes the huge problems Israel faces — Iran’s nuclear drive, Hamas and Hezbollah terrorism, and the global economic crisis — which, Netanyahu says, make a bipartisan government essential.
In his efforts to persuade Livni to join, Netanyahu is in a position to offer her a pick of top ministries, an equal number of portfolios to Likud and an equal number of seats in the security Cabinet. The stumbling block is the government’s program.
In an initial coalition meeting with Livni at Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel on Sunday, Netanyahu argued that the big issues on the national agenda were almost certain to be Iran, terrorism and the economic crisis, and that peacemaking with the Palestinians likely would take a back seat. Therefore, he said, a formula could be found to paper over their differences on the two-state solution, at least until they become relevant quite some time down the road.
That was not enough for Livni, who is making a clear two-state commitment from Netanyahu the ultimate test of whether they can work together.
Livni is convinced that she stands to gain politically from going into the opposition. By doing so, she could argue ideology is more important to her than ministerial jobs and that she really is “a different kind of politician” motivated primarily by principles, not power.