BINYAMIN NETANYAHU,Israel’s prime minister-designate,has begun negotiating with his Likud party’s natural allies for a right-wing-cum-religious coalition government. Still,though at first rebuffed,he has not quite given up hope of luring both Tzipi Livni,the leader of the centrist Kadima party,and Ehud Barak,her Labour counterpart,into a unity government of a milder complexion. He has until April 2nd to find a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Various permutations are still being aired.
Ms Livni,foreign minister in the outgoing Kadima-led government,says she will not provide a fig-leaf for the harsher policies she believes would hurt the country. She says that when she and Mr Netanyahu met on February 22nd he would not even acknowledge the need for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine,let alone seriously discuss a common policy for trying to bring it about. Mr Netanyahu offered parity in the cabinet between Likud,which won 27 seats to Kadima’s 28 in the general election on February 10th,but Ms Livni complains that her party would then be permanently outnumbered by the Likud-led block. Mr Barak says simply that having done so badly in the election,with only 13 seats,Labour needs to spend the next term in opposition,rebuilding itself.
The haggling and the refusal so far by both leaders of the two strongest parties to back down have rekindled a debate over whether Mr Netanyahu,who was prime minister from 1996 to 1999,is ultimately a pragmatist or at heart still an ideologue of the old school. Those who say he is a pragmatist point to the agreements he signed with the Palestinians in his first term and to the secret negotiations he held with Syria. Those who say he is an ideologue,wedded to the idea of a Greater Israel that would take in the West Bank and stretch down to the Jordan river,recall his niggardly foot-dragging during those negotiations.
Mr Netanyahu now says that Palestinian statehood is not possible in the foreseeable future. The Palestinian Authority on the West Bank is weak and ineffectual,and he could not negotiate with the Islamists of Hamas as they are terrorists who must be toppled from power. In the election campaign he rejected sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians and said he would not withdraw from the Golan Heights,a slice of Syria that Israel has held since 1967.
Even with such hard views,putting together a coalition of like-minded allies will not be easy. There are tensions between the far-right secularists of Yisrael Beitenu,which has 15 seats,and other more religious-minded groups over a proposal to bring in civil marriage and loosen the rabbis’ grip on matters of personal status. Yisrael Beitenu also wants drastic reform of the electoral system,as do many in Likud and on the left. But such proposals could spell the demise of the small religious parties whose votes Mr Netanyahu needs to secure a majority. Or they might be forced to merge with each other,a prospect they think only slightly less ghastly.
Allocating top jobs will also be tricky. Yisrael Beitenu’s leader,Avigdor Lieberman,who campaigned on an anti-Arab platform,wants a juicy plum. His 15 seats make it hard for Mr Netanyahu not to give him one. Mr Lieberman’s first choice is the Defence Ministry,but Mr Netanyahu may prefer to hand it to Dan Meridor,a Likud minister who veered left in 1999 to join a short-lived Centre Party and has veered back to the right again. Mr Lieberman may settle for the Finance Ministry; but the police are investigating him for alleged money-laundering,so that may be awkward.
He might end up as foreign minister,a prospect which,in view of his history of undiplomatic remarks,has raised eyebrows,to say the least. Last year he said Egypts President Hosni Mubarak should go to hell for refusing to visit Israel. Foreign ministers aren’t used to my style, he has conceded. But don’t worry,everyone will welcome me,including Egypt.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009