Mar 23, 2009

March 2009 Israel News Review

By David Dolan

Narrow Coalition on the Horizon

Prime Minister designate Binyamin Netanyahu struggled to put together a viable coalition government during March. The political party that was expected to be his main ally—the right wing Yisrael Beiteinu party—refused to sign a coalition agreement unless various conditions were met that Netanyahu found unacceptable. However by mid-month, most of the obstacles had been overcome, and Netanyahu initialed his first coalition pact with Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman on March 15. Under the agreement, Lieberman will assume the important post of Foreign Minister in the new government. The Likud leader followed this up by finalizing a pact with the religious Shas party on March 23, giving him a total of 53 seats as the basis of his coalition.

Netanyahu was granted a two week extension to form a viable coalition by President Shimon Peres on March 20. The extension was requested by the Likud leader in an attempt to draw the currently ruling Kadima party and the smaller Labor party into a broad national unity government. However Kadima, which garnered the most votes in the February 10 election, continued to rebuff the Likud leader’s offer to join such a coalition. Netanyahu did at least manage to meet again with party leader Tzipi Livni in an attempt to persuade her to join his government. But she repeated her insistence that she must rotate with Netanyahu as Prime Minister in any such coalition—a condition the former Premier is not willing to accept.

Attempts to negotiate a release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit stalled when the Israeli government balked at demands being made by the radical Palestinian Hamas movement, which kidnapped the soldier in June 2007. This came as reconciliation talks in Cairo between Hamas and Palestinian Authority officials produced no fruit, causing Egyptian leaders to send rival negotiators home.

Israeli media outlets published reports in March that questioned the morality of various actions carried out by IDF soldiers during the Gaza conflict that ended in mid-January. The reports produced immediate ripples on the Israeli political stage, with some calling for an official government probe of how the war was conducted. Others said the country could not afford another gut wrenching military investigation while the threat of further clashes with Hamas was a real possibility this year, along with the sobering prospect of a major conflict with Iran and the Lebanese Hizbullah movement, backed by Syria.