Barak Balances Israel's Rightward Tilt

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By Greg Sheridan

The shape of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Government will not be an obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

For the moment, there is no peace to be had - but Netanyahu has crafted a fascinating and potentially very clever Government.

Getting the Labour Party, led by Ehud Barak, to come on board was critical for international legitimacy. It means Netanyahu's Government is not narrowly right-wing. Barak was the Israeli prime minister willing to make the absolute maximum concessions, when Bill Clinton was US president, to secure peace with an independent Palestinian state.

Labour is a party of the centre-left and always committed to the peace process. If Netanyahu ultimately has to take direct action against Iran, having Barak as Defence Minister makes his Government infinitely more credible.

The role of Tzipi Livni, leader of Kadima, which will be in opposition, is also fascinating. Western governments, including Canberra, wanted a broad-based Israeli government involving Netanyahu, Barak and Livni.

Many Israelis are a bit condescending about Livni, whom they disparage as a lightweight compared to the giants of the past. But her extraordinary achievement in securing 28 members of the Knesset has transformed her stature. A long-term foreign minister, she is developing into a bit of a modern-day Shimon Peres, the most foreigner-friendly face of any Israeli government. This means earlier predictions Kadima would probably collapse in opposition with its former Labour people going back to Labour and its former Likud people going back to Likud may well be entirely wrong. Livni will be opposition leader and alternative prime minister.

Livni may just have convinced her followers, and Israelis generally, that Kadima has a future. And she could still be crucial in any real emergency. But it is Netanyahu's manouevres on the right that are perhaps most fascinating, and show him at his shrewdest.

He has brought in both Yisrael Beiteinu, under the leadership of Avigdor Lieberman, and two orthodox religious parties.

Lieberman is best known internationally for his anti-Arab rabble-rousing, especially his call for Israeli Arabs to take a loyalty oath to the state of Israel. But when he was a minister in a previous government, he was much more restrained, which suggests Lieberman, a very shrewd player, well understands the difference between opposition and government. But many Russian immigrants vote for Lieberman not so much because of his security stance but because he wants to secularise Israel and reduce the influence of the rabbis, especially in questions of marriage and divorce and rulings over who is and who is not a Jew.

This is anathema to the religious parties in Israel.

Now Netanyahu is himself not particularly religious but it seems to me he has done two clever (not necessarily good) things by including both religious parties as well as Lieberman.

First, he has made it almost impossible that Lieberman's social agenda will pass. Therefore, over time, Lieberman's Russian constituency may grow disillusioned with him and drift back to Likud, where they belong.

Second, Netanyahu has preserved his long-term links to the religious parties, who would never have forgiven him for implementing Lieberman's social agenda. Given the inherent instability of coalition governments, Netanyahu was not going to sacrifice this connection.

All of which means this: don't underestimate Netanyahu. He could run a very formidable government.

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