The formation by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a new coalition comprising a parliamentary supermajority prompted hawks to conclude that he was laying the groundwork for a military strike against Iran. Doves speculated that the new cabinet was well positioned to reopen peace talks with Palestinians.
In reality both considerations were secondary for Mr. Netanyahu and his new ally, Shaul Mofaz of the centrist Kadima party. Like democratic politicians everywhere, they were moved first of all by local politics.
Mr. Netanyahu preferred to extend his current tenure by 18 months rather than endure an election this fall. Mr. Mofaz dodged the likely devastation of his party in that vote. As relatively large secular parties, Kadima and Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud largely agree on domestic reforms they are committed to passing in the coming months, including a national service requirement for religious youth and a reform of the political system that would reduce the power of small parties.
It’s true that a more stable and centrist Israeli government may take action on Iran or Palestinian statehood. Mr. Netanyahu is positioned to move aggressively in either area. But whether he does is likely to depend more on developments outside than inside Israel.
First among these will be the outcome of talks between the United States and other powers with Iran over its nuclear program. If the negotiations succeed in their initial aim of obtaining a halt in Iran’s higher-level enrichment of uranium and the suspension of activities at a new underground facility, military action will be hard for Mr. Netanyahu to justify, even within his own cabinet. If they fail or Iranian nuclear activity accelerates, Israel will indeed have a government well suited for war.
As for peace talks with the Palestinians, that was one of the four priorities cited by the new coalition partners in their first news conference — and the only one that was not domestic. The Kadima party was founded by former prime minister Ariel Sharon to pursue a settlement; its new leader, Mr. Mofaz, has his own two-stage plan for creating a Palestinian state. Mr. Netanyahu, who had never endorsed Palestinian statehood when he became prime minister in 2009, has progressed to supporting a state on most of the territory of the West Bank.
Whether there is movement, however, will depend mainly on Palestinian decisions. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has mostly shunned Mr. Netanyahu, betting that he would eventually be pushed out of office. Now that he has been proved spectacularly wrong, he will have to consider whether to engage the new Israeli coalition. A merger of Mr. Abbas’s administration with that of Hamas in the Gaza Strip is still pending; so are long-overdue elections. If Mr. Abbas or a successor chooses to focus on peace talks rather than internal Palestinian politics, Mr. Netanyahu will have the strength to seriously bargain, if he chooses to. The Obama administration should be pressing Mr. Abbas to put the Israeli leader to the test.
The Washington Post (May 14)