JERUSALEM — Israeli political parties have reached a coalition agreement, clearing the way for a new government and some top-level international diplomacy as U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to visit.
It took a weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nearly six weeks to form a new Israeli government, barely beating a Saturday deadline. Netanyahu won national elections in January, but his right-wing Likud party lost ground to moderate, secular parties which set down tough demands.
For the first time in years, ultra-Orthodox parties are out of the government. Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg says that means a coalition with a more domestic agenda, led by ending military draft exemptions and stipends for the ultra-Orthodox.
“It’s going to tackle those domestic issues, that’s the goal at least, in terms of the distribution of the burden both military and financial. So it’s going to be very much inward looking," said Steinberg.
But when Netanyahu announced the coalition deal, he noted that the broader Middle East is in turmoil.
He said the new government must tackle major security and political challenges. He did not elaborate, but in previous statements, he has named them as Iran’s controversial nuclear program, the danger of Syria’s chemical weapons falling into the hands of Islamic terror groups, and reviving peace talks with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu says Iran will top the agenda when U.S. President Barack Obama visits Israel next week. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but Israel and the United States believe the Islamic Republic is developing nuclear weapons that could threaten the existence of the Jewish state.
Steinberg believes the prime minister will tell President Obama that if international diplomacy and sanctions fail, Israel is prepared to take military action against Iran on its own.
“As we get closer to the summer, and if we see progress towards an Iranian nuclear weapon, Netanyahu’s going to say, ‘If the Americans don’t act, if there’s no international military action, we’re going to have to act unilaterally,’ and he will get broad support from the Israeli public and most of the Israeli political system, including within his own coalition," he said.
Domestic issues and Iran have pushed the Palestinian issue to the back burner. But Netanyahu says reviving peace talks after a four-year stalemate is a priority.
Steinberg doesn’t expect any breakthroughs.
“We’re certainly going to go see some sort of negotiating effort because Obama is going to push for it; it’s something that for PR reasons the Israelis have to show that they’re interested," he said. "So we’ll see some movement in that direction, but probably not much substance.”
The Palestinians have refused to return to the negotiating table until Israel stops all settlement expansion, a demand rejected by the previous Israeli government. But there is speculation that with President Obama coming and a more moderate coalition in power, Israel might be willing to make concessions on the settlements.
Obama will discuss these issues with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when they meet in the West Bank next week.