It took six weeks of haggling,but Binyamin Netanyahu at last looks set to lead a not-entirely-right-wing government. The man who made it possible is the outgoing-and now incoming-minister of defence,Ehud Barak. It was he who made Ehud Olmert,embroiled in corruption investigations,announce his intention,last September,to step down as prime minister. In the ensuing election,last month,Mr Barak’s Labour Party was savagely diminished,coming fourth with only 13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset,Israel’s parliament. Since then,behind a façade of public assurances about how determined Labour was to stay out of a government of the hard right,Mr Barak has negotiated secretly with Mr Netanyahu to allow his reduced and riven party to stay in,as a pivotal partner in the new coalition.
Mr Netanyahu will command at least 62 votes when he presents his proposed government to the Knesset for approval next week. He may get 67 if he can yet draw in the five bearded,black-coated members of United Torah Judaism,and perhaps even more,if some of Labour’s seven recalcitrants can be persuaded to fall in behind their party leader. You have forfeited the leadership, one of them,Ophir Pines-Paz,flung at Mr Barak during a stormy meeting of Labours recent party conference. Only 55 per cent of the 1,000-plus delegates backed Mr Barak. [Golda Meir and [Yitzhak Rabin are turning in their graves, Mr Pines-Paz lamented,invoking a pair of Labour’s earlier leaders. The Labour rebels claim their party will give Mr Netanyahu a figleaf to cover a policy that will coddle Jewish settlers on the West Bank while letting the peace process languish.
Messrs Barak and Netanyahu go back a long way. In the early 1970s Mr Barak,who eventually rose to be the army’s chief of staff,was the commander and Mr Netanyahu one of his officers in the Sayeret Matkal,a semi-secret,elite commando unit. Much later,Mr Barak,who sees himself as the murdered Mr Rabin’s hand-picked successor,served a truncated term as prime minister from 1999 to 2001 after defeating Mr Netanyahu at the polls and ending his stint as prime minister after three years.
But Mr Barak’s coalition melted away after he had accepted President Bill Clinton’s “parameters” for a peace deal at the very end of the American president’s term. Mr Netanyahu had previously accepted the Oslo accords,signed by Mr Rabin in 1993,that foresaw the gradual creation of a Palestinian state. But Israel’s peace camp,led by Mr Barak,accused Mr Netanyahu,during his time as prime minister,of choking the peace process to death.
After their electoral defeats,both took time off from politics to make money from consultancies and lecturing. Both came back claiming they had attended to their flaws and had much improved. But supporters and traducers alike see little essential change in either. Mr Netanyahu,though more courteous than before,is still wobbly under pressure. Colleagues in his Likud party say that is why he has given away so many of the spoils of office to his coalition partners in back-room deals. Mr Barak is still aloof and authoritarian,scarcely veiling his contempt for politics in general and for his own party in particular.
Mr Netanyahu says the indelible lesson of his rocky first term as prime minister was not to make do with a narrow right-wing-cum-religious coalition the Likud plus its “natural allies”,as he calls them but to widen his government leftwards. He thinks Labour’s presence will soothe international worries about his hardline pronouncements (he has said there will be no Palestinian state for now,no withdrawal from the Golan Heights,and no partition of Jerusalem) and especially about his alliance with Avigdor Lieberman’s extreme nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party. Mr Lieberman,whose lot won 15 seats in the election,is to become foreign minister.
In his negotiations with Tzipi Livni,leader of the centrist Kadima party,which won the election with 28 seats to the Likud’s 27,Mr Netanyahu balked at explicitly embracing a two-state solution,in which Israel and Palestine would exist side by side as sovereign countries. Labour says he has now done so obliquely,by agreeing to abide by all the undertakings signed by the outgoing Kadima-Labour government.
Peaceful noises,of a kind
In the new Likud-Labour coalition,Mr Netanyahu has pledged to “work for regional peace” and to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority “for peace”,urging businessmen to invest in the Palestinian economy. His election platform stressed “economic peace” as the immediate practical goal of regional diplomacy. The Obama administration,however,has pointedly restated its commitment to the creation of two states as the key to a solution.
Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak argue,each to his own disgruntled party faithful,that Mr Barak’s continued stewardship of the defence ministry should reassure the Arabs and the wider world of Israel’s restraint and moderation. This seems bizarre,even obtuse,in light of the broad international opprobrium that followed Israel’s assault on Gaza earlier this year,which Mr Barak led as minister of defence. But opinion polls suggest that most Israelis continue to support and justify that attack,and many say it should have gone on longer. In any event,Mr Netanyahu may be pondering harder over Iran than over Palestine,and may want Mr Barak at his side as he considers military options to stop or delay Iran’s suspected ambition to get a nuclear bomb.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009