Steve Weizman, AFP
Last updated: 24 January, 2013

Netanyahu’s new government to face pressure on peace and Iran

Benjamin Netanyahu emerged from Tuesday’s vote with a new term as Israel’s leader, facing fresh global pressure over peace with the Palestinians as he seeks to keep the focus on Iran’s nuclear programme.

With exit polls indicating his Likud-Yisrael Beitenu list had won a narrow majority of 31 seats in the 120-member parliament, Netanyahu was quick to spell out how his new government’s energies would be spent.

“Firstly, security in the face of the great challenges ahead of us. The first challenge has been and still remains preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Sound economic management was next, followed by “diplomatic responsibility in our constant search for true peace,” he said, without so much as mentioning the word Palestinian.

Netanyahu has frequently warned about the danger of Iran’s nuclear programme, which Israel and much of the West believe to be a guise for a weapons drive, and has reserved the option for unilateral military action if it sees no other alternative.

Although world concerns over the Israel-Iran standoff have largely relegated the icebound peace process to the sidelines, diplomatic pressure appears set to make a comeback in the wake of the Israeli election.

Last week, Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper said the European Union was drafting a detailed new plan for restarting talks which would be made public after the election and the formation of a new government.

Citing Israeli diplomatic sources, it said the plan was intended to “bring about the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 lines with east Jerusalem as its capital.”

Earlier this week, British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that chances of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were dwindling.

Oded Eran, former Israeli ambassador to the European Union, said the situation was unlikely to change if Netanyahu were to bring the far-right Jewish Home, which opposes a Palestinian state, into his coalition party.

“I’m not so sure to what extent the Jewish Home is willing to accept the proposal of the two-state solution. I doubt it very much,” he told AFP of the party, which won 11 seats.

But the picture could change if Netanyahu were to form a coalition with the new centrist Yesh Atid, which won 19 seats and became Israel’s second-largest party just nine months after its founding by former TV anchor Yair Lapid.

Army radio said Netanyahu would have “no choice” but to offer one of the three major portfolios — defence, foreign affairs or finance — to Lapid, who has said he would not join a government which did not hold talks with the Palestinians.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu listed as the next government’s top priorities an expansion of the universal conscription law, affordable housing and a reform of government — three of the main issues of Yesh Atid’s campaign.

“The political picture that emerged last night is crystal clear,” said Haaretz.

“There is no reasonable government — meaning none that Netanyahu could head without becoming an international pariah — without Lapid.”

In an interview with the English-language Jerusalem Post this week Lapid said Netanyahu had been wrong to demand that US President Barack Obama set clear “red lines” on Iran while Washington was urging that more time be given to sanctions.

“It is hubris to give an ultimatum to the US,” he said. “An Israeli strike would only delay the Iranian nuclear problem.

“The way to make the ayatollahs fall is to strengthen the sanctions.”

Lapid confidant Nathan Dankner told army radio that Lapid should be a candidate for the post of foreign minister. That job was held until last month by Yisrael Beitenu chief Avigdor Lieberman, a rough-spoken settler who ruffled diplomatic feathers the world over and resigned over fraud charges.

Bringing Lapid into government could give it a less combative face, but Yesh Atid’s moderate line would be unlikely to have a big influence on Netanyahu’s policy toward the Palestinians, largely due to far-right MPs within Likud.

“If he goes for a far-reaching programme with the Palestinians, he is in danger of losing about one-third of his own party,” he said.

“So while the question of partners in the coalition is one consideration, it’s not the only one that will dictate to Netanyahu how he will proceed on certain issues, including that of negotiations with the Palestinians.”