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What about Palestinians? Israeli coalition may be hard-pressed to answer

Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed his first coalition partner in centrist Tzipi Livni, a move that could get a nod of approval from peace activists and U.S. President Barack Obama. But how cohesive any message of peace will be depends largely on the makeup of the rest of the coalition.

News analysis

TEL AVIV -- In the Middle Eastern bazaar, the first sale of the day is prized beyond any other. It is called the “siftach,” and to clinch the deal the seller gives a discount to the buyer, to launch a good day’s business.

In the case of the agreement announced Wednesday between Likud Beitenu leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, leader of  “Hatnua” (Movement) to join a coalition government, Netanyahu was desperate to get one of the several political parties he is negotiating with to be the first to reach agreement.

So to entice Livni to sign, he sweetened his offer to include what Livni dearly wanted: the role of chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians, in addition to the guarantee of the post of justice minister for her and the post of minister of the environment for another member of her party.

Her brief in a new Netanyahu government, then, would be to launch a new peace process with the Palestinians, according to the published agreement, “with the aim of reaching a settlement with them that will put an end to the conflict.”

The significance of this is that the responsibility passes from the foreign minister, who loudly proclaimed that he did not believe in peace with the Palestinians, to Livni, who does.

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In addition to being the first step toward forming Netanyahu’s third government, it allows him to send a signal to U.S. President Barack Obama, expected in Israel on his first state visit next month, that he is serious about moving toward peace and that Obama should support him; Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama is famously fraught.

What this means in practice, however, is far from clear. It depends on who else joins Netanyahu and Livni in building a coalition government. Pundits expect Netanyahu to focus his attention next on the Labor party, as well as a couple of the religious Jewish parties, and only then to go for broke -- to offer a role to the two young newcomers, one on the left and one on the right, who have surprisingly found common cause.

The question: Can Netanyau pull off a brilliant ploy and form a government without the second- and third-largest parties, Yair Lapid’s ‘Yesh Atid’ (There is a Future) and Naftali Bennett’s Bait Hayehudi (Jewish Home)?

Or is it so brilliant? When the voters speak clearly and give the second- and third-largest number of votes to two new parties with new leaders and a large majority of new members of parliament, shouldn’t this call for change be reflected in any new government?

The problem is, and this brings us back to Livni’s role as peace negotiator, Bennett and Lapid, who agree on many social and economic issues, could not be further apart on the central question: What about the Palestinians? Bennett is absolutely clear: No Palestinian state. Lapid is with Livni.

So is there a real change in the Israeli government’s position vis a vis peace talks? As always, Netanyahu is hard to read. Does he really want Livni to take Israel down the road to compromise and peace? Or does he just want to form a new government so badly that he will offer any enticement to make it happen?

Cynics argue the latter. Some others believe that maybe a miracle is at hand.

And as Israel’s first president, David Ben Gurion, once said: To be a pragmatist in Israel, you have to believe in miracles.

Martin Fletcher is the author of "The List," "Breaking News" and "Walking Israel."

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