Netanyahu, Cornered

Related: Read Gershom Gorenberg's dispatch on the outcome of Israel's election.

The map of Knesset seating arrangements published by the daily Haaretz on Tuesday showed Benjamin Netanyahu in a corner -- in the front row, on the very right edge. The drawing was merely a mock-up; members of Israel's parliament were sworn in for the new term later that day and had not yet been assigned seats. Yet it expressed what has become Netanyahu's nightmare: being stuck, for all the world to see, in the far-right corner of Israeli politics.

Netanyahu, it would seem, should be feeling confident and victorious. Last week, President Shimon Peres officially named him to form the next Israeli government. The murkiness of the Feb. 10 election results had been dispelled. He got the nod after all six parties of the Israeli right, which together have 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset, told Peres they preferred Netanyahu as prime minister.

Bibi Netanyahu is a nervous man, known for sweating heavily. What's making him sweat now is the prospect that his ruling coalition will consist only of those six parties of the right. That coalition will be fragmented and unstable. Even worse for a politician as America-obsessed as Netanyahu, it will deepen his difficulties in dealing with the Obama administration. Netanyahu would far prefer to share power with his ideological opponents, but as yet they are unwilling to rescue him.

"Right wing," in Israeli terms, is defined by attitudes toward land and peace. It translates as unwillingness to give up any significant portion of West Bank territory, unqualified support for settlement-building, and disinterest in reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu's own Likud and the other parties of the right share that stance, with gradations in their bellicosity. In other respects, they have much to fight about.

Economically, Netanyahu is a free-market fundamentalist. As finance minister under Ariel Sharon between 2003 and 2005, he cut income tax, particularly on top earners. In parallel, he slashed government payments to large families -- a blow to the ultra-Orthodox minority. Two of the right-wing parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, represent the ultra-Orthodox. To regain their support, Netanyahu has apparently promised to backpedal his stance on aid to families. But the budget battles won't end there.

There's a cultural fault line as well. Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Israel Is Our Home Party, is best known for demagogy against Israel's Arab minority. But Lieberman's platform also includes introducing a form of civil marriage. That plank is crucial to his key constituency, former Soviet immigrants, many of whom aren't Jewish under religious law and can't marry through the state rabbinate. The change is anathema to Netanyahu's other presumed coalition partners. Before the election, Shas' aging rabbinic leader, Ovadiah Yosef, saidthat anyone who backed Lieberman "supports Satan." Shas has 11 Knesset seats; Lieberman's party has 15. If either bolts a coalition of the right, Netanyahu will need to call new elections.

One of the splinter parties of the right, the National Union, represents hard-line settlers. The party's demands include legalizing many of the small settlement outposts in the West Bank, built in violation of Israeli law and left standing in defiance of the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace. The National Union also wants to increase settlement construction and to restore tax breaks for settlers. One of the party's four Knesset members, Michael Ben-Ari, is a declared disciple of the late Meir Kahane, whose Kach movement was banned from Israeli elections for racism and was later placed on the State Department's list of terrorist groups.

Without the National Union, Netanyahu would have a meager majority of 61 seats. After acceding to any of the party's demands, he'll find it even more painful than he would otherwise to meet with President Barack Obama's special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, or with Obama himself. An early meeting with the U.S. president has become an essential ritual for a new Israeli prime minister.

The Americophilic Netanyahu would be the last Israeli politician to skip that ritual. He was educated in the United States and began his public career as a diplomat at the Israeli embassy in Washington. But the side of American politics to which Netanyahu is attached, emotionally and ideologically, lost power in November.

Netanyahu's bad memories of his first term as prime minister in the 1990s include tense relations with the Clinton administration, which regarded him as recalcitrant, egotistic, and unreliable. This time, Netanyahu can't play a Republican-ruled Congress off against the Democratic president. And among Democrats on the Hill, there are signs of impatience with Israeli policy. At a hearing of the House of Representatives Middle East subcommittee earlier this month, Chairman Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York, criticized the "march of settlements" and "settler pogroms" -- along with Palestinian terrorism -- as factors that could make a two-state solution impossible. Add to that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry's decision to visit Gaza last week to see the destruction left by the recent war, and Netanyahu has reason to believe that visiting Congress will not be as enjoyable an experience as it was in the 1990s.

Obama's appointment of Mitchell is the clearest sign that the new administration intends to act quickly on the Israeli-Palestinian track. In a recent conference call with American Jewish leaders, Mitchell explicitly rejected Netanyahu's campaign slogan of "economic peace" -- improving the economic situation of Palestinians while freezing efforts toward a political solution. "You can't have economic development when you're shutting the door in the face of any diplomatic development," Mitchell said.

Netanyahu's preferred palliative is to bring his chief rival, Tzipi Livni, and her centrist Kadima party into his coalition. He'd even like to have Ehud Barak's Labor Party in a government of national unity that includes nearly everyone and stands for nothing definite. The outrageously optimistic reading is that Netanyahu would like to move toward the political center, following the path taken by erstwhile Likud politicians such as Livni herself. A much more realistic reading is that he's looking for cover while he avoids peace talks and builds settlements. Livni, serving again as foreign minister, would meet Hillary Clinton. Speaking with Obama, Netanyahu would point to his broad coalition as proof that he has wide public support and cannot be pressured.

At the outset, both Livni and Barak turned Netanyahu down. Livni met Netanyahu on Sunday night. Afterward, she told the press that her bottom line for joining a government was "reaching agreements with the Palestinians on the basis of the two-state principle" and that Netanyahu was unwilling to accept that principle.

It's possible that Livni is being pulled leftward by electoral politics. Her votes came largely from former supporters of Labor and the left-wing Meretz Party. If she stays in the opposition, registers those voters as Kadima members, and attacks Netanyahu daily for failure to make peace, she can cement her position as party leader. Meanwhile, she can wait for Netanyahu's coalition to crack, and run again for prime minister as a peace candidate. The Obama team might be happier if she takes that path.

Her rivals within her party may yet force her to accept Netanyahu's offer. They'd like the plum Cabinet positions he's offering, and they have no reason to help her gain popularity as a fighting leader of the opposition. Still, Livni is known as an icy negotiator, unwilling to cut a deal at a low price. In the days ahead, the battle between her determination and Netanyahu's desperation will shape the new Israeli government.

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