Setting aside rivalry, Netanyahu and Livni announce deal

Hatnua becomes first party to join coalition; Livni to serve as justice minister and run talks with the Palestinians

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hatnua party leader Tzipi Livni at the joint press conference where Livni announced she was joining Netanyahu's government as minister of justice, February 19, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hatnua party leader Tzipi Livni at the joint press conference where Livni announced she was joining Netanyahu's government as minister of justice, February 19, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, the leader of the centrist Hatnua party, on Tuesday announced that they would be joining forces in the next government in order to focus on Israel’s diplomatic and security challenges, with an emphasis on Iran’s nuclear program and peace talks with the Palestinians.

The threats emanating from Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah are “still a reality,” Netanyahu said at a Jerusalem press conference alongside Livni, and Israel needs a “broad and stable government coalition” to unite the country and face those threats.

At 1:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, amid stalled coalition discussions, Livni signed an agreement with Likud-Beytenu under which her party will join the coalition, where she will serve as justice minister. Livni will also head the government’s negotiation team with the Palestinians, an area in which she will be subordinate only to the prime minister.

“Livni and I,” Netanyahu said, “need to put aside disagreements in order to address the problems,” which he listed as the Iranian threat, the Palestinian issue, the high cost of living, and the need to institute a universal draft.

“We need a Palestinian partner; I hope we find a Palestinian partner for negotiations,” he said, and pledged to “form a team of ministers supervised by me for a peace agreement, with Livni at its helm.”

“We need to advance the peace process with the Palestinians,” Netanyahu continued. “We need to join forces and not seek differences. Livni will be a partner to an effort to achieve peace between two countries. We will do this together, based on the principles of the Bar-Ilan speech.”

During that speech, in 2009, Netanyahu pronounced his support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Speaking after Netanyahu, Livni said that her decision to join the coalition stemmed from “the need to find a diplomatic solution.”

Livni has been harshly critical of Netanyahu’s policies over the years, particularly on the international diplomacy front. She led the opposition as Kadima head for much of Netanyahu’s previous term as prime minister and sought to establish a joint front with other center-left parties before the elections to thwart his reelection.

On Tuesday, Livni acknowledged her complex history with Netanyahu, but insisted that “we need to put these things aside. We understand the need to deal with issues like the universal draft — but equally important are Iran and Syria.” 

Reports had surfaced earlier Tuesday indicating that Livni, whose Hatnua party won six seats in January’s elections, had accepted the proposal from Netanyahu.

In the past two weeks there had been indications that Hatnua was working closely with Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu faction, but that the center-left party didn’t want to be the first to sign a deal to join the emerging coalition. Although she didn’t rule out joining Likud-Beytenu in a new coalition, Livni had promised not to be a mere moderate “fig leaf” for a right-wing government that, besides Likud-Beytenu, only featured the Jewish Home party and the ultra-Orthodox factions.

Under the deal, Hatnua’s No. 3, Amir Peretz, will serve as environmental protection minister, and its No. 2, Amram Mitzna, will assume the chairmanship of the Knesset House Committee. The committee, which manages the day-to-day affairs of parliament, is currently chaired by the Likud’s Ze’ev Elkin.

A lawyer by trade and a former Likud stalwart, Livni previously held the justice portfolio for two stints between 2004 and 2006 in the Ariel Sharon government.

Netanyahu has also been courting Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, who has thus far been adamant that she won’t join the government and, instead, prefers to head the opposition because her party’s views and those of Likud-Beytenu cannot be reconciled. “In the past we have seen Netanyahu’s antics and we all know how low it brought us,” she said at her faction’s meeting Monday.

The agreement with Hatnua adds only six seats to Likud-Beytenu’s 31, leaving the two parties far short of the parliamentary majority of 61 seats required to form a ruling coalition. Netanyahu has thus far failed to sign on the Jewish Home and Yesh Atid parties, but the deal with Hatnua may shake up the situation, with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party thought close to signing an accord as well.

“For a week there have not been any significant negotiations,” Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett said at the start of a faction meeting on Monday. “We are interested in joining the government, and as soon as they decide to hold [serious] coalition talks, a government can be finalized in 24 hours.”

Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party, which has partnered with Jewish Home on several key policy issues in negotiations with Likud-Beytenu, expressed similar sentiments during his own faction’s meeting.

“It is the weekly meeting during which I report that nothing has happened,” he joked. Lapid went on to talk about what has become the major stumbling block for Likud-Beytenu in closing a coalition deal — that Yesh Atid and Jewish Home insist on sticking to their preelection platforms, notably on the imperative to conscript ultra-Orthodox males.

Michal Shmulovich contributed to this report.

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