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Can Bibi draw Livni into his government?

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Tzipi Livni meets with Benjamin Netanyahu for coalition talks at a Jerusalem hotel on Feb. 22, 2009. (Brian Hendler)

Tzipi Livni meets with Benjamin Netanyahu for coalition talks at a Jerusalem hotel on Feb. 22, 2009. (Brian Hendler)

NEWS ANALYSIS

JERUSALEM (JTA) — 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 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.

Initial surveys conducted by Kadima pollster Kalman Guyer show that taking the moral high ground this way could win Livni considerable public support. As leader of the opposition, moreover, she would be able to establish herself as a national leader and alternative prime minister. This is one reason Labor’s Ehud Barak already has said he is determined to keep his party in the opposition.

In her meeting with Netanyahu, Livni was adamant about continuing to pursue the Palestinian track.

"It was in this room that I conducted negotiations with Abu Ala; I don’t want it to be the room in which I end them," she declared, referring to leading Palestinian Authority negotiator Ahmed Qureia.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Livni confirmed that unless Netanyahu made major concessions in the new government’s policy guidelines, Kadima was headed for the opposition.

The Likud response to Livni’s moral argument for opposition is that with such huge challenges on the horizon, she should rise above petty personal and party political interests for the national good.

But so far there is little pressure inside Kadima for Livni to change her approach. Even members of the rival camp led by outgoing Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz are backing her position. 

"There is no point in joining a government that doesn’t take the internationally accepted two-state solution on board," Mofaz supporter Zeev Boim declared the day after Livni’s meeting with Netanyahu.

Although at this point Netanyahu’s chances of persuading Livni to join his government seem remote, the two leaders agreed to meet again.

The ball is very much in Netanyahu’s court. He will have to come up with convincing answers on the key Kadima issues, which besides two states for two peoples include civil marriage and changing the electoral system.

Otherwise, as seems likely, Netanyahu will find himself at the head of a narrow right-wing government, buffeted on the international stage and squeezed domestically over child allowances and other budget allocations in a time of economic hardship.

The choice is Netanyahu’s.

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