Clear 38° Good Afternoon
Clear 38° Good Afternoon

Netanyahu coalition gambit appears to backfire

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to bring a dovish rival into his cabinet appears to be backfiring. It is drawing heavy criticism both in Israel and from Palestinians and has complicated the task of forming a viable coalition government, to the point where rivals are openly threatening to force new elections.

It is now uncertain whether Netanyahu will meet an initial deadline this week for forming a new coalition. He may fail altogether. The task will then go to a rival, most likely former TV anchorman Yair Lapid, a new political star who heads the centrist Yesh Atid party.

Rivals are also openly talking about forcing new elections, just a month after a parliamentary election ended in virtual deadlock.

Polls Friday suggested that if repeat elections were held, Lapid, who is also an amateur boxer, novelist and former actor who has never held public office, might be elected prime minister.

Netanyahu has been scrambling to build a majority governing coalition in parliament since the Jan. 22 election, his mandate as leader of the largest faction, Likud-Yisrael Beitenu. But with just 31 seats under his control, he is far short of the needed 61-seat majority, out of a total of 120 seats in parliament.

The array of rightist and religious parties considered Netanyahu's natural allies did eke out 61 seats in the Jan. 22 election -- but that informal alliance has long been strained over a host of internal disagreements and it is showing signs of collapse. That has forced Netanyahu to look elsewhere, outside of his political comfort zone.

This week, the hawkish leader seemed to find an unlikely new ally, announcing his first coalition deal with former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, appointing her justice minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians.

The appointment was meant to signal that Netanyahu, who has come under heavy criticism internationally for the past four years of deadlock in Mideast peace efforts, is preparing to take a softer line toward the Palestinians in his new term. Livni is a former peace negotiator who has a good relationship with the Palestinian leadership and who is well respected internationally. The alliance also was meant to pressure other potential coalition partners to join him.

So far, Netanyahu's gambit appears to be missing out on both counts. The appointment is generating little excitement, and Livni, who campaigned on a platform almost exclusively of pushing for peace with the Palestinians, has been accused of selling out to the hard-line Netanyahu.

Livni's party won just six seats. Critics said that after spending the past four years lambasting Netanyahu's policies, she appears desperate.

"Tzipi Livni is no less trustworthy or cynical than other politicians who broke their word, bent over backwards, put away their slogans and election speeches and galloped into the arms of the one they had described as the mother of all sin," wrote commentator Yossi Verter in Haaretz newspaper.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, have accused Livni of becoming a "fig leaf" for Netanyahu. Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official, said Netanyahu brought on Livni to "give the impression that he is serious about peace" ahead of a visit next month by President Barack Obama.

With Livni on board, Netanyahu now controls 37 seats, still far short of a majority. He is now expected to court a pair of ultra-Orthodox religious parties. In the best-case scenario, Netanyahu would still be several seats short of a majority.

It will be virtually impossible for him to form a government without support of either Lapid's "Yesh Atid" ("Jewish Home") nationalist party close to the Jewish settler movement.

More news