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Netanyahu will likely ascend as PM

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009


Israel's newly elected parliamentary majority of right-wing and religious parties is expected to crown Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister in the coming weeks.

But whether the rightward shift puts a brake on the peace process and dampens relations with the Obama administration depends on the makeup of a new coalition government.

Although Mr. Netanyahu's center-right Likud party won 27 seats, one less than the centrist Kadima party of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the rightist bloc in parliament is expected to control 65 of 120 seats.

Mr. Netanyahu, who will likely be tapped by President Shimon Peres to get the first crack at forming a government, will have to choose between a narrow coalition of ideologically rigid partners that will make it difficult for him to work with the U.S. on the peace process or a wider coalition with a leading spot for Mrs. Livni and Kadima.

Political analysts suggest that Mr. Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 1996-99, will opt for the latter.

"Netanyahu doesn't want a narrow right-wing government because it´s a prescription for tensions with the U.S.," said Avraham Ben Tzvi of the University of Haifa. "It´s a collision course. I don't think Netanyahu is anxious to have a replay of the Clinton era, which was fraught with crises."

Both Mrs. Livni and Mr. Netanyahu continued Wednesday to behave as the victor, holding parallel consultations to set up their own coalition with the controversial third-place finisher, Avigdor Lieberman of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party.

"I'm still trying to make sense of it," Mr. Ben Tzvi said, likening the result to the 2000 U.S. presidential election when Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush became president because of his advantage in the Electoral College.

"In terms of legitimacy, Livni won the vote. But in terms of forming a new government, the center moved to the right slightly," Mr. Ben Tzvi said.

The new U.S. administration has said it plans to immediately immerse itself in Israeli-Arab peace making, raising expectations for renewed negotiations.

State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood dodged questions Wednesday about potential friction between a rightist Israeli government and the United States.

"Once that new government is formed, regardless of who is in that government, we will work with that government," he said.

Likud officials said that predictions of discord between a Netanyahu government and the United States were overblown, noting two meetings between President Obama and Mr. Netanyahu prior to the U.S. elections and saying that the two struck up a personal rapport.

But the two administrations are expected to clash over the continued rise in the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and army blockades that restrict the movement of Palestinians.

In the late days of the campaign, Mr. Netanyahu said he wouldn't evacuate the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and that he wouldn't compromise trading the strategic Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria.

One analyst said the Obama administration might be able to put more pressure on Israel if it is governed by the right.

"If it's a narrow right-wing government, Kadima will be in the opposition and will be able to take advantage of friction to criticize the management of relations with Israel's only real ally," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. "Any American government will benefit from that division."