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03/18/2013

Israel’s coalition: game, set, mismatch

Netanyahu on phone
 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canvasses potential voters ahead of Israel's January 2013 elections.   (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Argentina has a pope, Israel has a government.

Like pope-picking, Israel's coalition-cobbling is a back room event, but without the isolation, costumes or formality. Or, for that matter, the massive spotlight of publicity that fell on the Vatican.

However, after nearly two months of lobbying, arm-wrestling and horse trading an oddly assorted clutch of party leaders has cut a deal – several deals in fact – with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose own right wing Likud-Beiteinu faction couldn’t go at it alone after a disappointing election.

The result? One of the oddest ensembles since Lady Gaga’s wardrobe. 

Until now, Netanyahu has been able to pull together a more homogeneous government with far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties that encouraged the swelling of settlements in the West Bank, condoned the privileges of extreme religious groups and maintained that Israel had no viable Palestinian partner for peace talks.
 
This time around Yair Lapid – Israel’s new power broker and surprise runner-up in the elections – made ending ultra-Orthodox privileges a condition for joining the coalition, and squelched the ultras’ chances of serving alongside him. His centrist Yesh Atid Party also supports a two-state solution, but with substantial reservations.

Software mogul Naftali Bennett, who heads the other rising party, Jewish Home, speaks for settlers and vowed to “fight against a Palestinian state being founded in the land of Israel.” Ever.

Meanwhile, Tzipi Livni of the small, centrist Hatnua party, is one of the few, if weak, voices for re-launching peace talks with the Palestinians.

Livni will be justice minister, leading any possible talks. But Bennett’s party, expected to head the ministry of construction and housing, will play a key role in building the settlements that are the biggest impediment to peace. Adding to the mix, one of Likud’s hardest line members, former army chief of staff Moshe Yaalon, will almost certainly be defence minister, and the crucial foreign affairs portfolio will remain in the party’s hands.

Those who hoped that a new government would be a renewed chance to build bridges to peace have little to cheer for here.  If there’s smoke coming up from the hill at Givat Ram, it could be the whiff of bridges burning.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia. She has won both national and international awards, and collaborated on two Emmy-winning films based on her work.

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