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ISRAEL: Netanyahu bids to expand government

December 26, 2009 |  6:25 pm

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to expand his government.

This week, as the intense relay-negotiations over captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit were peaking, Netanyahu invited the head of the opposition, Tzipi Livni, for a meeting. Such briefings are both courtesy and protocol and it was assumed big news obliged a meeting. When she was uninvited and the meeting postponed, once again it was assumed this was in deference to pressing matters of state. But Netanyahu reportedly went to the gym instead.

While he was working out he was also working on a political deal and by the time Livni was re-invited, she was the last to learn Bibi had been negotiating with half her party under her nose. He invited her to join but seems determined to expand, with or without her. She'll think about it, she said. Make it quick, he said.

At first look, Netanyahu's move suggests revenge. Likud never forgave its members who followed Ariel Sharon 4 years ago when he left the party to form Kadima, which Livni now heads. Livni had won Israel's last elections by one seat but failed to form a coalition; the baton was passed to Netanyahu, who succeeded and became prime minister. Livni turned down his offer to join then and led her party into the opposition in a move that showed proud principle but also earned her a begrudging internal opposition. Netanyahu secured Labor Party leader Ehud Barak as an ally instead, but he too faces the threat of mutiny among his ranks.

Another look suggests small politics serve bigger needs.

Government in Israel's multiple-party system is complicated. The largest party has to negotiate agreements with several others to secure a stable alliance. Best to start big; the public feels this reflects unity and responsibility, the captain secures weight to throw overboard during a political storm without capsizing. When things get messy, government gets simplified and becomes a modular, lego-like thing. And when new pieces are attached, this suggests others are about to break off the structure.

If Netanyahu makes concessions to the Palestinians, he'll suffer from the right. If he doesn't make enough, he'll suffer from the left.

Recent troubles offer a preview. The Shalit deal is far from done but may already be taking a toll on Netanyahu. The first terror attack after the deal will be registered under Netanyahu's name, wrote Haaretz commentator Aluf Benn, who said the prime minister will be accused of giving a tailwind to terror even if the perpetrators have nothing to do with the deal. Two days later an Israeli was killed in a shooting attack in the West Bank.

Settlers charged this happened because Netanyahu and Barak removed roadblocks in the area to appease Palestinians and Americans; people warned this was just the promo if Israel released hundreds of terrorists in return for Shalit. Meanwhile the army killed three militants it believed were responsible for the West Bank shooting, and there's talk Israel may reinstate some roadblocks and thus expressly un-appease Palestinians and the U.S.

And then there's Iran. Things are piling up on the prime minister's plate, and there's strength in numbers and sense in keeping rivals where one can see them. Livni is fuming and sees the move as a dirty trick while she was being stately and charged with war crimes abroad (although some sneer that the political home-wrecker should be the last to complain about this). But she will meet with Netanyahu again. "I hope Livni realizes time is crucial," he said. 

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem