Kadima Rejects Netanyahu's Offer

Kadima, led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, declined the offer to form a national unity government made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling the offer "cynical and unrealistic." Last week, PM Netanyahu surprised Livni with an offer to form a broad-based coalition government that would have given Kadima, the largest party in the Israeli Knesset with 28 seats, four unspecified cabinets posts. Netanyahu cited existential threats to the state of Israel in making the offer but most Israeli political observers suggested that the offer was a ploy to hasten the fracture of the centrist Kadima party, the largest opposition party.

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Kadima, Israel's main opposition party, has voted against joining the ruling coalition after an offer from Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, last week.

Yohanan Plasner, a Kadima MP, said that the offer had been unanimously rejected on Monday by the party's parliamentary group.

"The prime minister's proposal as relayed to the Kadima chairman does not express an honest desire for such partnership," Plasner said.

"A unity government has many advantages, but a national unity should not be an empty expression, but a commitment for a real partnership with a joint vision and principles and an agreed way to materialise these principles," he said.

Tzipi Livni, the Kadima leader, said that Netanyahu's offer was "cynical and unrealistic".

She said that the offer was an attempt to use Israel's international relations issues for "small-time politics", adding such behaviour was "unworthy of the prime minister".

I should note that Livni has been facing an internal party challenge from Shaul Mofaz, the former Transportation Minister in the Olmert government. According to Ha'aretz, Mofaz is backing Livni on the rejection saying that "Netanyahu's offer, as it appears today, is arrogant and unrealistic. This arrogance is not a good quality for a leader; I tell Netanyahu today what I told Livni a few days ago: Arrogance is not a substitute for leadership."

Meanwhile poor Bibi is playing the role of a jilted lover. The Prime Minister's office released a short statement: "Netanyahu was saddened to hear that the Kadima faction, headed by Tzipi Livni, refused his offer and refused to broaden the national unity government. In light of the challenges Israel is currently facing, the prime minister had hoped that Kadima's stance would be different."

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Netanyahu Calls for a Unity Government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surprised the leader of the opposition, Tzipi Livni, with an offer to join the Likud-led right of center coalition government, saying Israel was faced with existential choices that required a broad coalition to form a unity government. By existential choice, Netanyahu is referencing Iran. The Kadima leader, and the former Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni did not reject the proposal out of hand.  The story in Haaretz:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked opposition leader Tzipi Livni, the chairwoman of Kadima, on Thursday to join a unity government. Livni did not immediately reject the offer, and added that if the offer is real "I always said that it is up for discussion."

Livni clarified that any decision regarding Kadima's moves will be taken by the party after thorough discussion and not by her alone.

Netanyahu told Livni that Kadima's addition to the government was crucial in light of the local and global challenges facing Israel today.

During their meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes, Netanyahu briefed Livni on political and security issues on the government's agenda, telling her that the basis for joining a unity government would be principles of peace and security that he outlined in his foreign policy speech at Bar Ilan University in June.

Netanyahu offered Livni to include four Kadima members in inner cabinet discussions, should Kadima join the proposed unity government, but he didn't offer ministerial portfolios.

The meeting between the prime minister and the opposition leader comes on the tail of Livni's accusation earlier Thursday that Netanyahu was trying to split Kadima, currently embroiled in a proxy war over the faction's leadership.

Kadima No. 2 Shaul Mofaz on Thursday demanded that Livni take the party to primary elections, telling reporters after their afternoon meeting that he hoped she would "listen to others, for once" and keep the party from breaking up.

The rift at the top of Kadima worsened on Wednesday, after MK Mofaz lashed out at Livni, saying it was her lack of leadership that has reportedly led 14 of Kadima's 27 MKs to start negotiations with Likud about moving to that party.

Mofaz met Livni at her north Tel Aviv home on Thursday afternoon, hours before the faction's council was to convene to discuss the future of the party.

Livni told Mofaz during the talks that she feared Netanyahu was "trying to split Kadima. It's on the table and it's a fact." She urged Mofaz, along with other senior members of the party to do everything possible to keep Netanyahu from "weakening Kadima."

Kadima, a centrist party by Israeli standards with 27 seats, is the largest single party in the 120-member Knessett. Israeli political observers seem to think that Netanyahu's offer is not much more than an attempt to destroy his only significant internal opposition by luring about a dozen of Kadima members to form a breakaway party and join the government.

Certainly events in the Middle East have been moving quickly over the latter part of 2009: a financial collapse in Dubai; a tribal revolt by a Shi'ite minority that has led to a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen; US drone attacks in Yemen targeting Al-Qaeda operatives; a border dispute between Iran and Iraq amidst attacks on Shi'ites; an Egyptian move to seal off the Gaza Strip; a rapprochement between Syria and Turkey that perhaps has left the Israelis worried; a historic visit to Damascus by Saad Hariri, the new prime minister of Lebanon; an Al-Qaeda attack against a Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in Riyadh; and the on-going but going nowhere talks between the West and Iran over the nuclear issue now set against the backdrop of increasing protests and unrest in the Islamic Republic. Never a dull moment.

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Netanyahu Could Strengthen Coaltion by Ending Settlement Growth

Via Talking Points Memo comes polling out of Israel that tells an interesting and even surprising story: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might actually be able to strengthen his own coalition by agreeing to a settlement freeze.

Q: If the government decides to halt construction in the settlements, should
Yisrael Beiteinu leave the government?
Among the general public:
Yes -- 36%
No -- 41%
Among Yisrael Beiteinu voters:
Yes -- 23%
No -- 60%
Q: If it is decided to freeze all construction in the settlements, should
Kadima join the government?
Among the general public:
Yes -- 41%
No -- 43%
Among Kadima voters:
Yes -- 52%
No -- 41%

These numbers indicate that not only could Netanyahu keep the hard line, far right Yisrael Beiteinu and its 15 Knesset seats (out of 120 total) in his coalition even while agreeing to a settlement freeze (a position most would have expected to be repugnant to a party that has run on a pro-settler platform), he might also be able to cajole Kadima with its 28 Knesset seats into joining the governing coalition. Indeed, with those three parties in tow, Netanyahu would have more than enough support to ensure control over the Israeli government even if he ended up losing a few members on the fringe (Likud + Kadima + Labor + Yisrael Beiteinu = 73/120 seats, or 12 more than necessary for a majority, even without any minor parties joining in). Even if Netanyahu lost Yisrael Beiteinu while adding Kadima, he would need the support of just three more Members of the Knesset from minor parties to give him a governing coalition. (See more from Jeffrey Goldberg.)

Of course things are not as simple as this. First, I haven't gotten the sense, either from news reports or from conversations I had with Netanyahu advisors six months ago while in Israel, that he is particularly open to such a move. What's more, the issues keeping Kadima out of the governing coalition -- including a reasonable reluctance to join a coalition as a junior member but with more seats than the leading party (28, versus 27 for Likud) -- still exist today as much as they did at the time the government was formed.

That said, these numbers at least suggest that there is a potential political upside for Netanyahu to come to the table with the United States over a freeze of settlement growth in the West Bank.

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Is Netanyahu Sidestepping Lieberman?

When the far right Avigdor Lieberman was tapped to serve as Israel's Foreign Minister in a parliamentary coalition led by Bibi Netanyahu, the Foreign Policy blog commented that "Israel's international standing is going to take a major nosedive," and the progressive J Street simply said "Oy." But could Netanyahu be sidestepping his officially designated Foreign Minister? Reading today's Washington Post it certainly seems like it.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak began a round of meetings with top U.S. officials yesterday in a bid to head off an increasingly sharp dispute between the United States and Israel over the expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory.

Israeli officials have been stunned by the demands of top Obama administration officials that Israel halt settlement growth throughout the West Bank, and Barak was said to be carrying compromise proposals focusing mainly on dismantling unauthorized settlement outposts. He met in New York yesterday with special envoy George S. Mitchell, and will meet with Vice President Biden, national security adviser James L. Jones and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in the coming days.

This is a key time in Israel's relationship with the United States. Just two weeks have passed since Netanyahu visited the United States for contentious top level meetings at the White House. The President is indicating that he will play a significantly more active role in trying to secure peace in the Middle East than his predecessor, even if it means prodding Israel to make some tough decisions.

Who does Netanyahu send to America at this time? Not his Foreign Minister, who is viewed unfavorably by many outside of his country, but rather his Defense Minister, who had a very close relationship with the United States and the Clinton Administration, in particular, during his tenure as Prime Minister a decade ago.

Perhaps this is reading too much into these meetings. Then again, maybe Netanyahu has learned at least some lessons from his first failed stint as Prime Minister, when his poor relations with the United States led to the demise of his coalition, and has opted to put forward Israel's best face towards America rather than the face he needed to officially designate in order to form his governing coalition.

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Obama: Israeli Settlements "Have To Be Stopped"

Two cheers for President Obama.

President Obama, at the press conference yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu:

Now, Israel is going to have to take some difficult steps as well, and I shared with the Prime Minister the fact that under the roadmap and under Annapolis that there's a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements.  Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.

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