JERUSALEM -- The surprise unity government announced Tuesday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has many observers predicting that the reformed coalition will embark on a more moderate path, from reopening a dialogue with Palestinians to softening rhetoric on attacking Iran.
The addition of the centrist Kadima Party to what has been called one of Israel's most right-wing coalition governments gives Netanyahu a comfortable 78% majority in parliament, lessening the political clout of smaller right-wing parties and factions.
Those parties, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beitinu and the ultra-Orthodox Shas, have dominated the government agenda for the last three years, including pushing to expand West Bank settlements, fighting efforts to demolish unauthorized outposts and passing laws that Arab Israelis say restrict their civil rights.
Some observers predict that the hastily arranged deal will give Netanyahu the political breathing space he needs to push for more moderate policies, which those close to the prime minister insist reflect his personal views. They say he has been unable to pursue them out of fear they would break apart his coalition.
"This gives Netanyahu more liberty," said Zalman Shoval, a foreign policy advisor for the prime minister's Likud Party and former ambassador to the U.S. "He's basically a centrist."
At a news conference Tuesday, Netanyahu said the new coalition will enable him to tackle the country's pressing issues, including pursuing a "responsible peace process." Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz vowed to "change the agenda."
Israel's right-wing politicians expressed alarm. Lawmaker Danny Danon, who leads a conservative faction within Likud, expressed fears that Netanyahu might move to freeze Israel's settlement construction in the West Bank, a key Palestinian demand for restarting peace talks.
"This is going to push the government to the center and to the left, and I am going to lead the effort to make sure the government maintains the values of the nationalist camp," he said, adding that Israeli settlers "are very worried about this arrangement and fear the government will not support them."
Mofaz, who for weeks blasted Netanyahu's leadership and repeatedly swore he would not join the government, defended the deal Tuesday. He said joining the government will give him a platform to push for renewed Palestinian peace talks and a law drafting ultra-Orthodox young people into the army, something religious parties oppose but that is popular among Israeli voters.
Mofaz may also put the brakes on Netanyahu's public threats to attack Iran's purported nuclear-arms program. In recent television interviews, he said the U.S. should lead any military strike and criticized the prime minister for "inflating" the immediate threat posed by Iran.
At the same time, however, analysts said that a unity government would provide Netanyahu with broader domestic support should he ultimately decide to strike Iran.
Some experts cautioned that the jury is out about whether the new unity government will set Netanyahu on a more moderate course, even though President Obama and other global leaders might pressure him to move in that direction. In recent years, many close to the prime minister have predicted that he would make a bold political shift, only to be disappointed when he remained loyal to his right-wing supporters.
"It's by no means clear that he wants to do so," editor David Horovitz wrote in Tuesday's Times of Israel, an Internet-based newspaper. "But he has room [to maneuver] now if he wishes to use it. And the Americans and the rest of the international community will be well aware of the fact.”
-- Edmund Sanders
Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz shake hands before holding a joint news conference Tuesday in Jerusalem to announce the new coalition government. Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / Associated Press