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Netanyahu's power play all about securing home front

Date

Ruth Pollard

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz announce the new coalition.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz announce the new coalition. Photo: AP

THERE are few certainties in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's monster new coalition, which holds 94 seats out of a 120-seat parliament.

It is not clear what it means for Israel's strategy on Iran or for the moribund Israel-Palestinian peace process, but it is clear that it is a neat marriage of vested interests between the Likud and Kadima parties.

Netanyahu only reached for the option of early elections because he had lost control of the hard-right settler parties in his coalition, which were threatening to walk if he upheld a High Court ruling requiring the government to demolish an illegal outpost in the West Bank.

With Kadima in the fold it means, for now, the Prime Minister no longer has to live under the threat of his coalition collapsing. But commentators have warned that does not mean he will act on this week's court ruling to demolish the Ulpana outpost, with reports in the Haaretz newspaper indicating he had asked his ministers to find a way around the ruling.

For the new Kadima leader, Shaul Mofaz, the deal has provided a political lifeline, and commentators say it is no surprise it was he who made the first approach to Netanyahu.

The polls were looking bad for Kadima - they showed an election in September, as Netanyahu had been touting, would have left the party with just 11 seats in the Knesset despite winning the largest number of votes in the 2009 election.

Under the deal, Mofaz becomes Deputy Prime Minister and minister without portfolio, while Kadima will retain the chair of the Foreign Affairs, Economics and Defence committees.

The new coalition will pass an alternative to the Tal Law on conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews into military service, undertake electoral reform and attempt to advance the peace process with the Palestinians, the deal states.

A poll published yesterday in Ma'ariv showed broad public support for the move to abandon early elections, but the Likud-Kadima move also drew an immediate response from the country's latent social justice movement. Hundreds took to the streets of Tel Aviv to criticise Mofaz for abandoning his socio-economic policies by throwing his hat in with Likud.

And despite concern from some quarters over what the deal means for Israel's stance on Iran and its nuclear program, Middle East analyst Avi Melamed said it was all about domestic politics.

''Having a solid, stable government makes it easier for Netanyahu to feel confident about making such dramatic decisions … but at the end of the day there are no real new players in this game, so Israel's direction on Iran will not change in any dramatic way,'' he told The Age.

Kadima politician Nachman Shai said Iran was not even mentioned once during the negotiations over the super-coalition. The stalled peace process with the Palestinians was discussed, he confirmed, but he acknowledged it had moved well down the list of priorities below the Tal Law, electoral reform and an emergency budget process.

The new coalition leaves ''an opposition so sparse that it cannot really be effective'', warned Naomi Chazan, a former deputy speaker in the Knesset and president of the New Israel Fund.

She said there would be much more street action: ''It will be the people against the government more because they will have so few voices in the official arena.''

The unity government may also mark Netanyahu's successful dismantling of Kadima and the broader political opposition, wrote commentator Ben Caspit in Ma'ariv. He speculated a ''super party'' could be formed for the next election taking the centrist elements of Likud, as well as Kadima and Defence Minister Ehud Barak's Independence Party.

Ruth Pollard is The Age's Middle East correspondent.

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