Israel PM in surprise coalition deal, cancels vote
JERUSALEM - The Associated Press
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks with other members of the Israeli Knesset at a session of the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem May 7, 2012. REUTERS photoIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a surprise deal with the opposition Kadima party on today, agreeing to form a national unity government and dropping plans for a snap election.
The agreement to form what will be Israel's seventh national unity government, will be put to a vote in the Knesset later on Tuesday, parliamentary speaker Reuven Rivlin told army radio.
It means that Netanyahu will head Israel's largest-ever coalition and be able to count on a majority of 94 votes in the 120-seat assembly.
Under terms of the agreement, Shaul Mofaz, who took over leadership of the centre-right Kadima party only six weeks ago, would become vice prime minister as well as a minister within the premier's bureau in the new cabinet, according to the draft of the deal seen by AFP.
Mofaz will be sworn on Wednesday, press reports said, suggesting he could also take over the portfolio of homefront defence.
The two men negotiated the 11th-hour deal as the Knesset was voting on a motion to end its current session to clear the way for an early election that Netanyahu himself had said he wanted.
According to an outline of the deal, Kadima and Netanyahu's rightwing Likud party agreed to replace a contentious law that allowed ultra-Orthodox Jews to defer their military service, with new legislation that would ensure a "fair and egalitarian" sharing of the burden of army service.
The two parties also pledged to change the system of government by the end of 2012, and Kadima MPs would lead three Knesset committees, including the prestigious foreign and defence affairs committee Mofaz currently heads.
The agreement also involves a commitment to renew the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, and a deal over the next state budget.
News of a new unity government was welcomed by the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, which is a key player in Netanyahu's coalition, but warned that its first test would be the new law on drafting the ultra-Orthodox.
"The real test of this new coalition is introducing a law which makes national service compulsory for all. We hope that the coalition will formulate a new law that will not just be another version of the Tal Law," a party statement said, referring to the outgoing legislation.
"Unity restores stability," Netanyahu told Israeli President Shimon Peres in an overnight phone call.
"A broad national unity government is good for security, good for the economy, and good for Israel," he was quoted as saying by his office.
Peres welcomed the move as "good for the people of Israel", saying it would help the country "in light of the crucial challenges facing it," his office said.
But Labour party chief Shelly Yachimovich blasted the deal as a "pact of cowards." "This is the most ridiculous zigzag 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." And Zehava Galon, leader of the leftwing Meretz party, told army radio the move would allow Netanyahu to "pass almost any law he wants." "A coalition of 94 MPs is almost a dictatorship," she said.
Former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who led the party for three-and-a-half years until she was replaced by Mofaz six weeks ago, issued a muted response on her Facebook page.
"I know exactly what feelings you're experiencing now after the night's events, but remember that there are other politics, and they will win," wrote Livni, who resigned from parliament exactly a week ago.
The deal is a political coup not just for Netanyahu but also for Mofaz, an Iranian-born former general and one-time military chief-of-staff. He took over as Kadima chairman following faction primaries on March 28, inheriting a party in crisis.
Although Kadima won the largest number of mandates in the 2009 elections -- taking 28 seats -- it failed to form a government, and repeated polls have suggested it stood to lose up to half them in any new election.
Many commentators focused on the swift U-turn executed by Mofaz, who in March vowed never to take the party into a coalition with Netanyahu, whom he described as "a liar." "I won't enter Bibi's government. Not today. Not tomorrow and not after I lead Kadima on March 28," he wrote on his Facebook on March 3, using the premier's nickname.
On Sunday, Netanyahu had called for early elections, saying he wanted a broader-based government to assure the country's future.
MPs had been due to vote on a bill to dissolve the parliament overnight when news of the deal broke.
The current parliament's mandate runs until October 2013.