Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved forward with efforts to assemble a broad governing coalition after recruiting former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni with a promise to let her manage peace talks.
Livni, who heads the Hatenuah party, said today that she will not serve as a “fig leaf” for stalling peace efforts with the Palestinians, as she accused Netanyahu of doing during last month’s campaign. She was nevertheless roasted by many Israeli media commentators for the turnabout, after rebuffing Netanyahu’s invitation to team up four years ago and turning into his harshest critic as the parliamentary opposition leader.
“Livni learned the hard way that she made a mistake last time and she can accomplish more by being inside the government,” Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said today in a telephone interview.
Netanyahu, whose pact with Livni adds only six parliament seats to the 31 his Likud-Beitenu ticket won in the election, still has to woo bigger parties such as Yesh Atid, Jewish Home, Shas or Labor to reach the threshold of 61 in the Knesset needed to form a government. Some of them oppose the two-state solution advocated by Livni and the U.S., Israel’s main ally.
The premier’s coalition negotiator said earlier efforts to build the coalition around the second-place Yesh Atid party and settlement-advocating Jewish Home had become too tense, and led him to start with Livni.
“The prime minister put the tension aside” and will continue negotiating with other parties, negotiator David Shomron said in an interview with Army Radio.
Netanyahu has said he intends to have his new government in place before President Barack Obama visits in late March.
Gabi Gazit, a popular radio host on 103 FM, started his morning program today with a mock funeral to mourn the “death of shame” that he said was demonstrated by the Livni-Netanyahu alliance. Yossi Verter, a commentator in the Haaretz newspaper, described the press conference at the Knesset late yesterday where the agreement was announced as a “chilly ceremony that looked like it came out of both their nightmares.”
Livni, who will become justice minister in Netanyahu’s government, said she and the premier agreed to put aside bitterness from the campaign and work together on the peace process. Her party will also run the Environmental Protection Ministry, according to the coalition agreement, which may be led by former Defense Minister Amir Peretz.
“We have to go forward with a common understanding that in order to pull Israel from its isolation, we have to start a diplomatic process,” she said today in an interview with Israel Radio.
Livni turned down Netanyahu’s invitation to team up after the 2009 elections when she was head of the Kadima party. Even though Kadima won the most seats, Netanyahu outmaneuvered her to form a coalition, leaving Livni as opposition leader, a post she quit in frustration last year.
Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which finished second in the vote and was named as a possible coalition ally by Netanyahu, has expressed support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Other parties including Jewish Home, a member of Netanyahu’s outgoing coalition, and some members of the premier’s own Likud bloc are opposed to it.
“We’re not happy that Livni’s going to run diplomatic talks” with the Palestinians, “but there is still a chance that we’ll enter the coalition,” Uri Orbach, a Jewish Home legislator, told Israel Radio.
Peace talks broke down in 2010 and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas says he won’t resume them unless Israel stops adding to settlements in the West Bank. Livni, who led negotiations with the Palestinians under former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has criticized new settlement plans announced by Netanyahu’s government.
Abbas issued a statement today that he would not respond to the Livni appointment because the coalition negotiations are an internal Israeli affair. A member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s policy making Executive Committee, Wasel Abu Yusef, said “it’s impossible to go back to negotiations without a complete settlement freeze.”