Jerusalem: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a unity government on Tuesday in a surprise move that could give him a freer hand to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and seek peace with the Palestinians.
The coalition deal, negotiated secretly over the past days and sealed at a private meeting overnight, means the centrist Kadima party will hook up with Netanyahu’s rightist coalition, creating a wide majority of 94 of parliament’s 120 legislators.
The coalition, which replaces plans announced just two days earlier for a snap election in September, will be one of the biggest in Israeli history.
“This government is good for security, good for the economy and good for the people of Israel,” Netanyahu told a joint news conference with Kadima’s leader, Shaul Mofaz.
The new coalition would focus on sharing out the duty of military conscription among all Israelis, redrawing the national budget and advancing electoral reform, he said.
Ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition had opposed plans to extend conscription to their supporters, who are now exempt.
“Lastly it is to try to advance a responsible peace process … Not all has been agreed but we have a very strong basis for continued action,” the prime minister said, adding that he hoped the Palestinians would “spot the opportunity and come sit with us for serious negotiations”.
“Of course one of the important issues is Iran,” Netanyahu added in response to a question.
Environment Minister Gilad Erdan said the accord would help build support for potential action against Iran’s atomic programme which Israel views as an existential threat.
“An election wouldn’t stop Iran’s nuclear programme. When a decision is taken to attack or not, it is better to have a broad political front, that unites the public,” he told Israel Radio.
A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to “use the opportunity provided by the expansion of its coalition government” to expedite a peace accord.
“This requires an immediate halt to all settlement activity throughout the Palestinian Territories,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said. “The new coalition government needs to be a coalition of peace and not a coalition for war.”
Peace talks have been suspended for 18 months.
Signal to Iran
The coalition accord will be formally ratified later on Tuesday and presented to parliament, officials said.
Mofaz, a former defence minister, will be named vice premier in the new government. He took over leadership of the Kadima party in March from Tzipi Livni.
As deputy prime minister in a former Kadima-headed government in 2008, Mofaz was among the first Israeli officials to publicly moot the possibility of an attack on Iran.
But the Iranian-born Mofaz has been more circumspect while in the opposition, saying Israel should not hasten to break ranks with war-wary world powers that are trying to pressure Iran through sanctions and negotiations.
Gerald Steinberg, political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said the coalition deal “sends a very strong signal to Tehran, but also to Europe and the United States, that Israel is united and the leadership is capable of dealing with the threats that are there if and when it becomes necessary”.
Israeli officials say the next year may be crucial in seeing whether Iran will curb its nuclear plans in the face of international condemnation and Western sanctions. Iran will discuss its nuclear programme with major powers on May 23.
Israel has regularly hinted it will strike the Islamic republic if Tehran does not pull back. On Tuesday, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast dismissed the threats of attack as “propaganda”.
Iran regularly rejects Israeli and Western accusations that it is working on developing a nuclear bomb, saying its programme is focused on generating electricity and other peaceful projects. Israel is widely assumed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal.