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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Sunday, April 29, 2012. (RONEN ZVULUN/AP)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Sunday, April 29, 2012. (RONEN ZVULUN/AP)

ISRAELI POLITICS

Stronger Netanyahu likely to focus on domestic agenda Add to ...

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was given a rare opportunity this week to usher in major changes to Israel’s political makeup and foreign policy when Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz brought his 28-seat party into Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition.

“Even [David]Ben Gurion didn’t have such a vast majority,” said analyst Eitan Haber, referring to Israel’s first and longest-serving prime minister. “With 94 seats, you can do whatever you want.”

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Arye Carmon, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, was quick to welcome the weighty coalition. “We now have an opportunity to deal with many of the ailments facing our society,” he said.

But while many think this new mega-coalition means Mr. Netanyahu is more likely to attack Iran, of whose nuclear military capacity Mr. Netanyahu has sounded the alarm, Mr. Haber doesn’t agree.

“What it means is that, when it comes to Iran or anything else, Netanyahu can show [U.S. President Barack]Obama he doesn’t just speak for a right-wing government. He speaks for 80 per cent of the Israeli population.”

Mr. Haber, who was Yitzhak Rabin’s chief political adviser and author of books on Likud leaders Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, says the Israeli leader wants to stiffen the resolve of the United States and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council as they conduct negotiations with Iran over its nuclear facilities.

Mr. Netanyahu prefers to put Israel’s domestic house in order rather than focusing on international challenges, says Canadian lawyer Moshe Ronen, who is vice-president (North America) of the World Jewish Congress and a long-time friend of Mr. Netanyahu.

“Bibi didn’t go looking for this deal,” said Mr. Ronen, using the Prime Minister’s nickname, “so don’t expect any grand international designs. That’s not his style.

“But when it comes to Israel’s domestic agenda,” he added, “yes, I think he’ll take the opportunity to do things he otherwise would not have dared try.”

Chief among those are two opportunities: to engineer a new policy for the military conscription of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men, almost all of whom have been exempted from service required of almost all other Jewish Israelis; and to bring in electoral reforms.

Both of these areas of reform have long been favoured by a majority of Israelis, who want a new deal in their society in which the national burdens are better shared and the votes of large numbers of citizens are not overruled by small, often religious, political parties that end up holding the balance of power in many governments.

Indeed, these were the two most important things for Mr. Mofaz when he entered into this coalition.

“The moment the Prime Minister agreed to the two conditions – the Tal Law [governing draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox]and the change of the system of government, I thought that there was a basis for dialogue,” he told an interviewer this week.

A senior Netanyahu official agreed that these are the two areas ripest for reform.

On the issue of conscripting religious Jews, “the Prime Minister wants a system where everyone does his fair share and where no one group is demonized,” he said.

Passing legislation to make conscription universal would never have been tried before this coalition for fear the two main religious parties would withdraw their vital support for the government.

As for electoral reform, “it’s to be completed by the end of the year,” the Netanyahu official said, referring to a Dec. 31 deadline that was written into the coalition agreement with Mr. Mofaz.

The reforms are to be in place by the time of the next election.

Mr. Mofaz supports radical change, including electing half the parliament in regional elections; increasing the electoral threshold in the proportional representation system; and increasing the proportion of votes required to overthrow the government in a no-confidence motion.

Mr. Netanyahu’s views are less clear and he approaches electoral reform somewhat reluctantly.

“If Bibi develops real trust in Mofaz, I could see him taking this on,” Mr. Ronen said. “But it means risking the loss of support [from the right-wing and religious parties]” he said. “That’s a risk he may not be willing to take.”

The Sephardi religious party, Shas, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, along with smaller parties, have resisted such change.

The Obama administration welcomed the creation of this mega-coalition specifically because it gives Mr. Netanyahu an opportunity to advance the peace process with Palestinian leaders.

No longer can the Israeli leader say the right wing will topple his government if he pushes the agenda too far, U.S. officials say.

That may be, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the peace process, Mr. Haber said.

“If Mofaz insists on doing all three things [conscription, electoral reform and peace negotiations] he’ll fail,” he said. “Better to choose fewer things and be successful.”

But Mr. Mofaz insists he’s serious about the peace process, too, and he has a published plan to prove it.

Released in November, 2009, the plan calls for the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state on 60 per cent of the territory of the West Bank (with 99 per cent of the Palestinian population), along with a promise to negotiate final borders equivalent to those before the Six-Day War of 1967.

Mr. Mofaz even says he is willing to negotiate with Hamas, the militant Islamic movement that won the 2006 Palestinian election and controls the Gaza Strip, if the organization is willing to come to the table with Israel.

“It’s hard to imagine Bibi agreeing to anything like that,” Mr. Ronen said.

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