Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Israel's Unity Government: How Big Was the Shift to the Center?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Israel's Unity Government: How Big Was the Shift to the Center?

Article excerpt

A new coalition government in Israel was expected to give Prime Minister Netanyahu more flexibility on Palestinian peace talks. But moves on Jewish settlements suggest otherwise.

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.''

To be sure, the newly expanded government has sent out mixed signals to the Palestinians during its first week.

On Friday, a panel of politicians from the hardline wing of the coalition huddled to discuss a law that would retroactively legalize settlement outposts built on land owned by Palestinians - bypassing recent decisions by the Israeli supreme court that the government must dismantle those outposts. Then, on Sunday, a group of ministers discussed a government-sponsored bill to annex the settlements - a move that would effectively negate potential negotiations with the Palestinians over a state. 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. …

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