Middle East

Netanyahu's power play pays off

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about the birthday of Theodor Herzl at the Knesset on May 7 2012
Image caption Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has benefited from the surprise coalition deal

Having created one surprise in pushing for an early general election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has now delivered an even greater bomb-shell.

The plan for early elections has been abandoned. Instead a new broadly-based governing coalition has been called into existence with the opposition centre-right Kadima party of Shaul Mofaz joining the government.

Many of Kadima's members of parliament were facing defeat in any early general election: they will breathe a great sigh of relief.

But the real victor in all of this is the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. A general election is not now due until November 2013.

And with the broadest-based Israeli coalition for many years supporting him, Mr Netanyahu has an opportunity to deal with some of the pressing issues facing Israeli society.

'Extreme elements'

A new law is promised dealing with the system of exemption from military service for ultra-orthodox Jews - more of them will be encouraged to serve.

In a country where the military is still based upon conscription, the issue of how the burden of military service is divided up remains a controversial one.

Issues of social justice and the economy could also be tackled and there are promises from the new government for the reform of Israel's fractious political system to provide more stable, broadly based government.

Israeli prime ministers have tended to be prisoners of the more extreme elements in their own coalition governments, with small ultra-orthodox parties or the more hawkish elements of the settler lobby having an altogether disproportionate influence on policy.

Now with a large coalition behind him, Mr Netanyahu has at least a chance to change some of this. But success is not certain. Institutional reform in the past has led nowhere. But above all else it is going to depend upon Mr Netanyahu himself.

International authority

He emerges from this re-alignment with his power and prestige significantly enhanced. While much of the driving force for this change stems from domestic considerations, it clearly reinforces his stature in foreign policy as well.

It will give him more authority when tackling the issue of Iran's nuclear programme; it has the potential to allow him to try to get things moving on the peace front with the Palestinians; and it will bolster Israel's government at a time when the familiar politics of the region has been up-ended by the Arab Spring.

Image caption Mr Netanyahu is expected to look at the issue of ultra-orthodox Jews' exemption from military service

Seasoned observers would caution against any great hope of movement with the Palestinians.

Much could depend upon whether the new US administration moves swiftly to try to reinvigorate negotiations. But the same regional uncertainties that confront Israel also face the Palestinians.

Some analysts note the recent death of Benjamin Netanyahu's father as potentially a factor in all of this.

He was undoubtedly a highly conservative influence on his son. Will this be the moment that Mr Netanyahu moves out from beneath his father's ideological shadow?

The prime minister's critics may say that while he has once again proved himself highly adept at political manoeuvring, he is yet to prove himself equally capable as a statesman.

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