Deal buys time and stability for Israel


ANALYSIS:The Netanyahu-Mofaz masterstroke will have implications throughout the Middle East, from Jerusalem to Tehran

YESTERDAY’S POLITICAL bombshell, just as Israel was gearing up for what was almost universally perceived as another superfluous election campaign, was praised by most commentators as a masterstroke and one of the craftiest and cynical political deals ever struck.

One analyst even went as far as to compare the unity deal struck between prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz to the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

That may be stretching it a little.

Mr Mofaz began his political life in the Likud, bolting with others to join Kadima, set up by Ariel Sharon, in 2005.

He always advocated joining Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, criticising Tzipi Livni, who he replaced as Kadima leader in March, for failing to do so.

With Kadima on board, Mr Netanyahu can now boast one of the broadest-based coalitions in Israeli history, and it is now expected that the government will serve out its full term until October 2013 – almost unprecedented for an Israeli government.

The two leaders explained at a joint news conference that the broad-based unity government opens the way for “historic change” impossible under the previous right-wing, religious coalition.

Certainly, Israeli leaders will no longer be able to use the excuse of coalition restraints to explain the ongoing deadlock in the Middle East peace process.

Mr Mofaz had been highly critical of the prime minister for failing to advance peace with the Palestinians, describing the impasse as a bigger threat to Israel than a nuclear Iran.

Mr Mofaz believes Israel and the Palestinians should clinch an interim deal setting up a Palestinian state on 60 per cent of the West Bank before negotiating a comprehensive peace agreement. However, such an approach does not have the backing of either Mr Netanyahu or the Palestinian leadership.

Mr Netanyahu stated yesterday that advancing a “responsible peace process” would be a key aim of the new government, and he urged the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.

“We were ready for negotiations and we are now. We’re ready for serious, responsible talks in which both sides will have to make tough decisions.”

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, called on Israel to use the opportunity provided by the expansion of its coalition to expedite a peace accord.

“This requires an immediate halt to all settlement activity throughout the Palestinian territories. The new coalition government needs to be a coalition of peace and not a coalition for war,” he said.

There is also no doubt that an expanded coalition gives Mr Netanyahu more leeway if he decides on a military strike to prevent Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb.

Mr Mofaz , who served as Israel’s top general before being appointed defence minister under prime minister Sharon, will now sit in the nine-member security cabinet , the forum which decides on such matters.

Mr Mofaz has spoken out against a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran, and it is highly unlikely that Mr Netanyahu would order such a move without the endorsement of both Mr Mofaz and defence minister Ehud Barak, who together now make up Israel’s new security triumvirate.

Mr Netanyahu confirmed he has held discussions on Iran with Mr Mofaz and acknowledged their differences. He said the key was “to be very responsible and very judicious.” The first indication of the direction of the unity government will be seen in its response to Monday’s high court ruling setting a July 1st deadline to destroy five homes built on Palestinian land in the settlement of Beit El.