Just days before President Obama arrives for his first visit as a sitting president, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached an agreement on a new coalition government. The new government is considerably less conservative and orthodox than previous administrations, and that bodes well for renewed peace talks with Palestinian officials. Yael German of coalition partner Yesh Atid told Army Radio "Let's sit and proceed toward a peace agreement. It is essential," ccording to the Huffington Post.
Although Netanyahu has not yet made an overt indication that he is willing to make concessions, the new coalition government that includes Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah Party represent the best indication of peace talk progress since the tenure of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
For the first time in years, the government will not include ultra-Orthodox groups. The ultra-Orthodox represent the most conservative and religious members of the government and populace and are the most vocal opponents to peace talks. The members of the ultra-Orthodox religious groups are not eligible for the draft and wielded tremendous influence over budgetary matters. Under the new coalition they will have considerably less influence, including losing the ability to direct funding to their schools which typically eschew math and science for religion.
Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc captured 31 seats in the general election and will retain control over the defense and interior ministries and have final say on all military and immigration matters. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party won 19 seats in the election. As part of the coalition government, Lapid will be named finance minister. He will have considerable control over budgetary matters. Yesh Atid will also lead the Education, Social Affairs, Science, and Health ministries.
The other major partner in the coalition is Habyit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) led by Naftali Bennett. He will serve as deputy prime minister, economics, trade, and religious affairs minister. Israeli newspaper Haaretz credited Bennett with being the mediator between Lapid and Netanyahu that led to the the coalition agreement. Bennett’s nationalist party will be in charge of the Housing Ministry. This will present a challenge to peace talks, as Bennett favors the expansion of settlements and the annexation of parts of the West Bank. The expansion of settlements, particularly into the West Bank, the proposed home for a Palestinian state, has been the source of much of the controversy surrounding the peace talks.
Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister whose new party got six seats, is a major supporter of settling the peace talks with Palestine. Netanyahu appointed Livni to be chief negotiator with the Palestinians largely because of her good working relationship with them aswell as her party’s supportive stance towards the peace talks. The Hatnuah party leader will serve as justice minister and has been given a special mandate from Netanyahu "to push forward in negotiations towards a peace settlement."
Lapid firmly believes in a two-state solution, although he does oppose any withdrawal from Jerusalem. Lapid indicated that he supported a transition to statehood for Palestine that includes an interim stage where the Palestinian Authority would be granted the status of "a semi-country within temporary borders." This suggests that he might support the United Nation vote to elevate the Palestinian Authority to non-member observer status. Lapid and Livni offer the best hope to rekindle serious talks that have stalled since Netanyahu assumed office.