Middle East

Israeli PM Netanyahu strikes surprise coalition deal

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Media captionThe BBC's Jon Donnison says Mr Netanyahu will "dominate the way that Israeli politics is going"

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has struck a deal with the opposition Kadima party, avoiding the early general election he had sought.

Kadima's recently-elected leader, Shaul Mofaz, is set to be named deputy PM.

Mr Netanyahu said their new coalition wanted a "responsible" peace process with the Palestinians and "serious" talks about Iran's nuclear programme.

The move came as parliament debated its dissolution before an election Mr Netanyahu had planned for September.

Kadima is currently the biggest party in the Knesset, but recent polls have suggested the number of seats it holds could be halved.

The coalition will have a majority of 94 - one of the biggest in Israeli history.

President Shimon Peres said the deal was "good for the people of Israel".

'Move of unity'

At a news conference with Mr Mofaz on Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu said he had "jumped at the chance" to create Israel's "broadest government".

The new coalition, which will govern until the end of the Knesset's current term in October 2013, would give Israel "stability", he argued.

"From the very beginning I wanted to continue to [the original date of the] elections, and when I saw that that stability was being undone I went for [early] elections," he added.

According to an outline of the coalition deal, Mr Mofaz will be appointed deputy prime minister and made a member of the Security Cabinet and Mr Netanyahu's inner circle - previously known as the Forum of Eight. Kadima will also chair four powerful parliamentary committees, including foreign affairs and defence.

The party also received a commitment to re-start the Middle East peace talks in earnest, and support for changes to the so-called Tal Law, which allows ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students to defer military conscription. Secularists say the law is unfair and in February the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

"Up until a few days ago I was told that I wanted elections in order to escape the budget, the Tal Law, and the toughest questions facing Israel," Mr Netanyahu said.

"And here were are together... saying we're pulling together for four main issues - pass a fair and equal distribution of the national burden that would replace the Tal Law; passing a responsible budget; bringing about a change in the system of governance; and, lastly, to try and promote a responsible peace process."

Mr Netanyahu would not say he would reconsider a freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has demanded, but stated: "I hope that President Abbas will take advantage of this opportunity."

The prime minister also promised "serious and responsible" talks on Iran.

Mr Mofaz, a former defence minister and military chief-of-staff who was elected Kadima leader just over a month ago, said there were "times in the life of a nation in which it is required to take significant decisions".

"There are moments in a leader's life in which he has to take decisions that have a personal significance," he added. "The time has come to change the agenda. This is a move of unity which is important to Israel's future."

Only a few weeks ago, Mr Mofaz said the Likud-led coalition represented "all that is wrong with Israel", and in March he pledged never to join it.

'Corrupt and ugly'

The new Leader of the Opposition, Labour party chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, condemned the deal, saying it was a "pact of cowards".

"This is the most ridiculous zig-zag in the history of Israeli politics," she wrote on her Facebook page. "With this final burial of Kadima, we have received a rare and important opportunity to lead the opposition, and will do so with energy and faith."

The deal was also denounced as "corrupt and ugly" and "the old kind of politics" by Yair Lapid, a former TV presenter whose new Yesh Atid party is doing well in the polls and stood to benefit from an early election.

"It is time to remove it from our lives," he wrote on Facebook. "They think that now they will continue for some time, and that we will forget, but they are mistaken. This disgusting political alliance will bury all those involved."

Opinion polls suggested that Likud might win at least a quarter of the Knesset's 120 seats if the elections had been held in September.

The polls are not very accurate or trustworthy in Israel, but Mr Netanyahu is, by some stretch, the most popular politician, the BBC's Wyre Davies in Jerusalem reports.

Mr Netanyahu must be credited with leading one of the country's most stable governments of recent times, our correspondent adds.

He says the main issues in any election would be, as ever, security, including now the threat from Iran, and relations with the Palestinians.

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