Netanyahu Gets More Time, Hopes to Forge Broader Coalition -- Israel's Incoming Government Could Clash With Obama Administration

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 20, 2009; 9:40 AM

JERUSALEM, March 20 -- The foreign minister of Israel's incoming government lives in a West Bank settlement and will begin life as a diplomat battling the perception that he is anti-Arab.

A leading contender to become defense minister once characterized the two-state solution that forms the basis of U.S. and international policy toward Israel and the Palestinians as "a story the Western world tells with Western eyes." And the potential make-or-break votes in the country's new parliamentary coalition belong to legislators from religious parties that would like to expand settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

The coalition that will make up Israel's next government is not yet final. On Friday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu received permission to extend negotiations for two more weeks in hopes of reaching agreements with some of the country's more moderate parties and forging a broader-based unity government in the 120-seat parliament. But Netanyahu thus far has not been able to strike deals with those parties, instead pulling from conservative and religious factions to create a narrow majority that seems tailor-made for conflict with the Obama administration, which supports a Palestinian state and is expected to push for progress on drawing its borders. Netanyahu is himself a skeptic when it comes to Palestinian statehood and has referred to U.S.-backed peace talks as a waste of time.

While Netanyahu has compromised in past dealings with Washington -- an earlier term as prime minister was cut short after he made land concessions at the urging of President Bill Clinton-- his still-to-be-finalized coalition partners may not leave him much room to maneuver.

"The more narrow the government the more difficult it will be for Netanyahu to make some gesture towards the U.S.," said Gerald Steinberg, chairman of the political science department at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. On issues such as settlements, if pressure comes from Washington, "it is likely to lead to a major confrontation."

Israel and the United States still agree on a broad set of issues -- including some, such as curbing Iran's nuclear plans, that Israel's new government wants at the top of the agenda. But Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. analysts and officials agree that the two governments will likely be at odds on questions of West Bank settlements and movement toward a Palestinian state.

From the Palestinian perspective, a push from Washington is seen as the most likely chance for progress after eight years in which President George W. Bush was widely perceived as unwilling to challenge Israeli positions.

"They cannot avoid the challenge forever," said Qwais Abulaila, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "If the United States wants to keep its credibility, they have to have the courage to confront them."

Already, there has been controversy over a possible Netanyahu national security appointee, Uzi Arad. He has been denied a U.S. visa because of a meeting he had with a Pentagon employee involved in leaking information. Arad, a former Mossad agent, has said he did not receive any classified information and expects the visa problem to be resolved.

The election last month that put Netanyahu's Likud party in position to govern followed a period in which Israelis had soured on prospects for a negotiated peace. Israel dismantled settlements and withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, but the move did not bring the expected quiet. Rockets and mortars fall regularly into Israeli towns. The Islamist group Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections and, about a year later, forced the rival Fatah faction out of Gaza.

In the context of that history, said Netanyahu senior adviser Ron Dermer, there is far more to discuss than Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

"My impression is that the number of people who believe that issue is the difference between peace in the Middle East and war are few and far between, after all that happened in Gaza," Dermer said.

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