As Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu continued to struggle to put together a coalition government this week, Israelis were riveted to a different drama — the negotiations to free kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.
With Shalit’s parents camped with supporters in a tent in front of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Jerusalem home, the current Israeli government made one final push for Shalit’s release before it leaves office. But a deal with Hamas terrorists holding Shalit in Gaza that at times appeared imminent collapsed Monday and Olmert went on national television to explain that Hamas’ demands were too high.
“We have red lines and we will not cross them,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are entangled with a cruel body, lacking in basic human sentiment, murderous, unscrupulous, which was not ready to respond to the challenge.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, said the Shalit negotiation “was the dominant conversation in Israel in the last week, in some ways more than the formation of a government.”
“People talked about what to give back, how many and what kind of terrorists,” he said. “There is a personal drama here and it allowed Olmert to dominate the stage and be statesman-like.”
The Israeli government was reportedly willing to free 320 of 450 prisoners Hamas was demanding in return for Shalit. It said the others had planned the most heinous of deadly attacks in Israel in this decade – including the Netanya Passover massacre, and the bombings of the Sbarro restaurant and the Hebrew University cafeteria – and that they could not be released.
Steinberg said the government believed the “number of people likely to be killed as a result of releasing these people who were willing to commit mass murder” in the past was too great to permit the hostage trade to proceed.
Yossi Alpher, co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian political dialogue site bitterlemons.org, said “Olmert made the best of a difficult situation, but Shalit isn’t home yet and Olmert is saying it will no longer happen on his watch. He had hoped it would happen to shore up his legacy, but taking a principled stand looks in my eyes that he did the right thing.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu on Wednesday again reached out to the Labor Party to coax it to join his government. He was quoted as saying Labor has “many leading figures who are experienced and can contribute much on security, diplomatic, economic and security issues. Their presence in the government would greatly strengthen the country’s leadership ….”
The Israeli newspaper Maariv reported that Netanyahu has told Labor Party leader Ehud Barak that his party would get to head five ministries and have two deputy ministry spots should it join his government.
“It’s quite clear that Barak is more than interested in becoming defense minister [again], and it is a question of whether four or five others in his party will go along,” Steinberg said.
Although negotiations continued to try to bring the ruling Kadima Party into Netanyahu’s government, many observers said the chances were slim but could change if Labor joined. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni had said that for her to join Netanyahu’s coalition, he would have to agree to pursue peace talks with the Palestinians to achieve a two-state solution. Another alternative would be for Netanyahu to agree to a rotation government in which he would be prime minister for three years and she would be prime minister for 21 months.
“It’s hard for me to imagine Netanyahu agreeing to a rotation because it weakens him,” Steinberg said, adding that it was more likely he could finesse language about a two-state solution that Livni would agree to.
But Asher Susser, a senior research fellow at the Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Netanyahu “may have to agree to a rotation government because [Livni] did so well” in the Feb. 10 election.
Kadima won 28 seats and Netanyahu’s Likud won 27.
Susser said he is inclined to believe that in the end, Netanyahu will be able to cobble together a centrist rather than a rightwing government.
“This is what Bibi wants to do … and what most Israelis prefer,” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “The question is how they will all look at the issues we face. Will they be statesmen or small politicians?”
Susser pointed out that although Netanyahu has already signed a coalition agreement with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yirael Beiteinu Party, he had not signed with any of the smaller, rightwing parties.
“If he formed a rightwing government first and then went to Kadima to join, it probably wouldn’t,” he said. “But if he goes to them [first], they will get more [in terms of power] and would be more willing to join.”
Without Kadima and Labor, Netanyahu would have to bring in such parties as the National Union and Jewish Home, both of which support settlers living beyond the three major settlement blocs.
“These parties project themselves as representing more Israelis than the actual number suggests and settlers beyond the blocs are not popular with the public,” Susser said, adding that the settlement blocs Israel wishes to annex encompass only about 5 percent of the West Bank.
Should Netanyahu assemble a rightwing government, it might have difficulty in its dealings with other countries. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit was quoted as saying at a Euro-Mediterranean Partnership meeting in Brussels this week that he was concerned about the establishment of an “extreme right” government in Israel with Lieberman as foreign minister.
Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado wrote to the European Union’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana Tuesday urging that the EU review its ties with Israel. And on Monday, Solana told reporters in Brussels that the EU may have to reconsider those ties if the Netanyahu government was not committed to continuing talks towards the creation of a Palestinian state.
Alpher said such comments “reinforce Netanyahu’s hesitancy about forming a rightwing coalition because of the difficulties he will have.”
Should Netanyahu form a rightwing government with Lieberman as foreign minister, Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said Lieberman might not be in that position long because of a criminal probe against him that appears to be coming to a head.
“Police recently received a cache of thousands of documents that increase by far the probability he will be indicted for money laundering and forgery,” he said. “The front for this [alleged] operation was his daughter, who got millions of dollars for her advisory services. She is young and unqualified and that is a very weak cover.”
But in the meantime, Ezrahi said Lieberman as foreign minister would be a “tremendous setback for Israel because we were the ones who were protesting rightwing racists like [Austria’s] Jorge Haider and [France’s] Jean-Marie Le Pen. Now we might have a foreign minister who has a record of racist statements that are unbelievable. Now anyone he meets would pay attention to his personality rather than Israeli foreign policy. He would be the focus of attention, and that diversion would be a negative development for Israel.”
Should Netanyahu form a coalition with Labor and Kadima, Susser said it would open the door to electoral changes that would not be possible if the coalition consisted largely of small, rightwing parties that might lose power as a result of the changes.
“If you had Kadima, Likud and Labor as the core, you could do anything in the area of electoral reform,” he said, referring to such things as constituency representation instead of simply voting for parties.