Last update: 20/2/2013, 09.30 GMT
- Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni has agreed to enter Prime Minister Netanyahu’s next coalition as Justice Minister, and will also have responsibility for leading Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians.
- Livni entered despite having been a harsh critic of Netanyahu, from a position of relative political weakness. The deal gives her the government role she desired, and strengthens Netanyahu’s negotiating position with other parties.
- Livni led substantial talks with the Palestinians in 2008, and it will be hard for anyone to question her good faith in wanting an agreement. However her room for manoeuvre if the Palestinians agree to talks will depend on Netanyahu’s position, which will in turn be influenced by which other parties enter the coalition.
- Netanyahu is expected to next try and bring the two MK’s from Kadima into the government, and the ultra-Orthodox parties, after which he will be in a stronger position to complete his majority with any of Labour, Yesh Atid or Jewish Home.
What has been announced?
On the evening of Tuesday 19 February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni, whose list won six seats in the elections, held a joint press conference to announce an agreement by which she will enter the governing coalition. According to the agreement she will authorised to lead negotiations with the Palestinians, “with the aim of reaching a settlement with them that will put an end to the conflict.” In addition she will become Justice Minister, though according to the agreement she will be able to draw support from other relevant branches of government in any peace negotiations. Netanyahu will apparently lead a four person committee responsible for the peace process to include Livni, alongside the defence and foreign ministers.
In addition it is understood that Livni’s party will receive the environment ministry, which will probably be given to former Labour and Trade Union leader Amir Peretz, as well as a Knesset committee chair, which will probably be taken by another former Labour leader on Livni’s list, Amram Mitzna.
Why have the two sides made this agreement?
This is a surprising move on Livni’s part given that the entire basis of her election campaign was that she offered an alternative to Netanyahu and his policies, and in particular his failure to offer any hope on the peace process. Clearly she has strong personal motivations to enter the government, as she is in a much weaker position politically than four years ago, and is likely to wither in opposition as she did in the last four years. By entering the coalition first, she was able to secure a relatively good deal. At the same time, Netanyahu must have said enough in their private discussions that makes her believe he intends to try and break the deadlock with the Palestinians.
For his part, Netanyahu is strongly motivated to have a credible peacenik figure in the government, who will help balance out right-wingers in his own party, and reassure both the international community and the Israeli centre-ground that there are strong, moderate voices in the government. This is particularly the case given that Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who filled this role in the last government, appears on his way out of government and political life.
Bringing in Livni also improves Netanyahu’s bargaining position in his separate negotiations with the other larger parties.
What does it mean for the peace process?
Tzipi Livni led Israel’s negotiating team on final status issues with the Palestinians under the Annapolis process in 2008. They were a detailed and extensive set of talks that made progress on a number of core issues, though with still significant gaps between the parties when the process was brought to an end by the collapse of the Olmert government. Given the legacy of Annapolis and Livni’s personal political profile, it will be harder to question her good faith in wanting to reach an agreement, as many have with Netanyahu over the last four years.
Though Netanyahu will remain ultimately in control of Israel’s negotiating position, it is remarkable that he is willing to trust Livni with the actual face to face talks. Netanyahu has been guarded enough about his own position over the past four years that there are no open contradictions between their positions, but it will remain to be seen if Livni will want to start any future talks where she left off in August 2008, something Netanyahu refused to do when he became Prime Minister in 2009. Netanyahu said that Israel’s position will be along the lines of his 2009 Bar Ilan speech in which he affirmed his support for two-state solution, as well as his major policy speeches on the peace process to the US Congress and the Knesset in May 2011. The degree of flexibility the government has in the diplomatic process will of course depend on which other parties join the government. In any case, having Livni in charge of the negotiations will not go down well with the right wing of the Likud.
Any progress, of course, is predicated on whether the Palestinians decide to re-enter negotiations. Given that they have successfully manoeuvred to avoid direct negotiations with Netanyahu for the past four years, this remains a big if.
What does it mean for the coalition building process?
Netanyahu’s overall interest is in securing as wide and balanced a coalition as possible, thereby minimising the influence of any one coalition partner or the ability of individual parties to hold the government to ransom over any one issue.
By securing an agreement with Livni, Netanyanhu has strengthened his hand in negotiating with the larger potential coalition parties: the ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas with 11 seats, UTJ with 7); Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party (19 seats); Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party (12 seats); and Labour (15 seats). Netanyahu will strengthen his position a little more if he next succeeds in making a deal with Shaul Mofaz to add the two seats of the centrist Kadima to the coalition. If Netanyahu then succeeds in bringing the ultra-Orthodox parties into the government, which most see as his next preferred option, he will up to 57 seats, just four short of a Knesset majority. At that point the pressure will grow on each of Jewish Home, Yesh Atid and Labour to complete the picture.
Currently Labour leader Shelly Yachimovich is adamant that she will not join a Netanyahu led government, but pressure may grow within her party, and the possibility of the faction splitting cannot be ruled out. Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid have so far appeared to coordinate their positions, hoping to enter the coalition together on the basis of a shared social agenda, in particular ending draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men. Netanyahu is keen to tempt each potential partner separately to enter on his terms, and once in sight of a majority, it will be easier for him to do so.