Israeli rivals appear close to forming coalition

Netanyahu cobbles together a majority in parliament

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JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached deals Thursday with two political rivals that will enable him to forge a broad-based, but potentially unstable, coalition government.

After weeks of hard-fought negotiations with the centrist party Yesh Atid and the nationalist Jewish Home, Mr. Netanyahu managed to persuade both to join his government with a combination of political promises and coveted ministry appointments.

The agreements were awaiting final signatures Thursday night, reportedly delayed by discussion of government titles for some players. The deals give Mr. Netanyahu a 68-vote majority in Israel's 120-seat parliament. That means he will secure a third term as Israel's leader, but will be left with a more unruly coalition whose members often hold diametrical views on such matters as settlements and Palestinian peace talks.

Mr. Netanyahu had originally hoped to swear in a new government this week, well before the expected visit next Wednesday by President Barack Obama. Now, the government is likely to be sworn in early next week.

The new coalition also forced Mr. Netanyahu to terminate, at least for now, his longtime alliance with Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties. They were left out of the government because the other coalition partners want to pass legislation to draft ultra-Orthodox young people into the army for the first time and cut government stipends that many religious families receive.

Angry leaders of the religious party Shas, which will join the left-leaning Labor Party in the opposition, said they would not forget what they view as a betrayal by Mr. Netanyahu. "The boycott of the Haredim is a stain that will never be erased," said Shas leader Eli Yishai, a reference to Orthodox Jews. Mr. Yishai served as Mr. Netanyahu's interior minister in the most recent government.

The new coalition marks a setback for Mr. Netanyahu, who last year decided to bring down his own coalition -- one of the most stable in decades -- in the hopes of increasing his political strength at the polls.

Instead, Israelis -- increasingly frustrated by the rising cost of living and perceptions that ultra-Orthodox citizens are not pulling their weight -- shifted slightly to the center and left. In Israel's Jan. 22 national election, Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party saw its number of seats in parliament shrink, as those of his rivals on the right and left grew.

Those results forced Mr. Netanyahu to bend to the will of two political newcomers: Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett of Jewish Home. Their surprise post-election alliance, despite ideological differences on some issues, prevented Mr. Netanyahu from playing them against one another.

The deadline for forming the new government was Saturday, after which another party leader would have been asked to try to make a coalition, or a new election would have been called.

According to the coalition agreements, the new government may take more progressive positions than the previous one, pushing to expand the military draft, standardizing school curriculum, reforming the electoral process and striving to restart Palestinian peace talks.

Another key demand of Mr. Lapid's was reducing the size of the Cabinet, which will drop from 30 ministers in the last government to an expected 21 in the next one.

But coalition agreements are not always implemented, and it remains to be seen how many of those policies are carried out or passed into law. Once the government is formed, Mr. Netanyahu may regain the upper hand in setting the agenda, analysts say, daring coalition partners to quit if they disagree.

"As long as it deals with domestic issues, it will remain stable," said Hebrew University political scientist Gideon Rahat. "On the other hand, gaps between coalition members on foreign policy are very wide."

In addition to Mr. Lapid and Mr. Bennett, an old Netanyahu rival, Tzipi Livni, will join the government as minister of justice and "minister in charge of the peace process." Israeli officials said, however, that peace talks were unlikely to be a priority of the next government. "There is a consensus that this isn't very high up on the agenda," said one lawmaker in Mr. Netanyahu's party, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn't want to upstage the prime minister. "Even when Obama comes next week, everyone knows that they are just going to pay lip service to the peace process and talk about more important things, like Iran."

U.S. officials have said Mr. Obama is not coming to Israel with a peace plan, or with any expectation of a breakthrough in the long-mired Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.


McClatchy Newspapers contributed.


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