January 16, 2013 - 1:00am


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, which has decided to present a joint-list of candidates with the Yisrael Beiteinu party for the Jan. 22 elections, is expected to become the largest party in the next Knesset (parliament). However, opinion polls show that the two right-wing parties will not get enough mandates to form a majority government by themselves, and will hence have to convince other parties to join them in a coalition government.

In this case, their choice of coalition partners will be key to the policies of the future Israeli government, especially policies regarding foreign affairs, such as the long-stalled peace process with the Palestinians.

During the run-up to the parliamentary elections, debates have mainly focused on domestic social and economic issues and Iran's nuclear program. However, the peace process with the Palestinians, which for the last 20 years has been one of the most important questions in Israeli politics and one that defines if a party is right-wing or left-wing, has hardly featured.

Nevertheless, in the last week there have been indications from the international community that they are not happy with the current deadlock. The European Union announced last week that they would present a proposal to resume Israel-Palestinian negotiations in March, and King Abdullah II of Jordan warned that the failure to reach an agreement is adding to the regional tensions. In addition, U.S. President Barack Obama is less than pleased with Israel's continued settlement construction, especially in the E1 area east of Jerusalem, according to Bloomberg news agency.

Analysts said it still remains to be seen if and how Netanyahu will respond to the messages from the international community.

Dr. Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University told Xinhua Tuesday that if the EU intends to influence the Israeli elections, its efforts will be in vain. The message from the EU "is a factor in Netanyahu 's decision-making about the cabinet or coalition, then he will certainly be getting the same message from the United States... If anything will have an effect, it will be the U.S. rather than the EU," Heller added.

Heller argued that it will become clear what kind of government Netanyahu will establish once the election results are out, since it is the number of mandates each party receives that would ultimately determine how the new government would lean.

If the three main center-left parties, HaTnua (the movement) under Tzipi Livni, the Yesh Atid (Future) party led by former newsman Yair Lapid and the Labor party of Shelly Yachimovich, together with Likud-Beiteinu get more than 61 mandates, Netanyahu could opt to form a government with them.

Analysts said such a government could find a solution to the deadlock in the peace negotiations, as oppose to one which includes the right-wing HaBaiyt HaYehudi party (the Jewish Home), whose leader Naftali Bennet has proposed that Israel annexed 60 percent of the West Bank.

"If Netanyahu has any maneuverability, he would probably prefer a government that gives him more room to maneuver, which is to say a center or center-right government rather than a hard right-wing government," Heller said.

Professor Eytan Gilboa of the Bar-Ilan University said he was a bit puzzled over the timing of the news from Washington, but insisted that there is no pressure from the United States on Israel to re-engage in the peace process, simply because Obama has not finalized his own government after securing a second term months ago.

Gilboa said Netanyahu has two options when it comes to putting together his government, "and as far as I know, he wants a national unity. He wants at least one centrist party in his coalition."

He added that the halt of negotiations with the Palestinians is not the most important issue in Israeli-U.S. relations. "For Israel, Iran is the number one issue and this is a more serious contact between Israel and the U.S."

Netanyahu has called a nuclear-armed Iran an "existential threat" to Israel. While other politicians in Israel chose to focus their election campaigns on social or economic issues, the only one to criticize Netanyahu's standpoint and defense spending on Iran is former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Analysts said that even if Netanyahu does build a coalition with the center-left parties, it is hard to imagine that Israel's policy on Iran would change.

A majority of respondents in recent opinion polls said they are in favor of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. However, Heller said Israelis are skeptical of the possibility of actually achieving peace, and therefore if someone comes along and says that they can promise peace, people are not so ready to believe it.

"As much as people want peace, they are also cautious about what kind of deal they would accept and they think that Netanyahu might be a harder negotiator, which is also something that they want," Heller said.

But more importantly, he said, the issue is not the only thing that determines how Israelis votes.


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