Tzipi Livni
Tzipi Livni will have a direct hand in any negotiations with the Palestinians, according to the agreement. Photo by Alon Ron
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Tzipi Livni is set to be justice minister under the first coalition agreement since the January 22 general election, which was signed Tuesday between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Livni’s Hatnuah party.

In televised remarks, Netanyahu said the union with Livni was intended to create a “broad and stable government that unites the people.”

He said he wanted to face down what he called the “tremendous challenges” posed by Iran’s nuclear program and unrest in neighboring Arab states.

Netanyahu said Israel must “make every effort to promote a responsible peace process with the Palestinians,” adding that he hoped for a resumption of the talks that were suspended over Israeli construction in West Bank settlements.

Livni, 54, cited a “strategic and moral imperative to leave no stone unturned, to exhaust any possibility and become a part of any government that commits to bringing peace” as her reason for deciding to join the coalition.

At a joint press conference Livni and Netanyahu stressed that their mutual goals had trumped their disagreements and paved the way for the agreement.

“We are joining the government first because Iran, Syria and the Palestinians are no less urgent that sharing the burden and the high cost of living,” Livni said.

Netanyahu said the two had agreed “to set our differences aside and overcome old rivalries to combine forces for the sake of the country.”

Livni will join the inner cabinet and will be the government’s exclusive negotiator with the Palestinians. Netanyahu will promise not to conduct separate talks to cut Livni out of the process.

Hatnuah, which has six Knesset seats, will receive an additional cabinet portfolio, most likely that of environmental protection, according to party sources.

Any agreement reached with the Palestinians will be submitted to a vote in the cabinet and in the Knesset. Party discipline will be suspended, allowing MKs to vote according to their conscience.

Livni did not make specific demands regarding legislation on issues such as universal national service or reforming the system of government, but did state that such measures would be implemented.

Speaking to Haaretz shortly after the announcement Tuesday, Livni said, “I won’t be a fig leaf for the Netanyahu government. I have full authority to run the negotiations” with the Palestinians, she said.

Livni was referring to her campaign promise not to enter a right wing-Haredi coalition alone. She said that while such a coalition was possible, it was not up to her.

“In the past, Netanyahu first brought in his natural partners and then turned to us. This time it’s different,” she said, adding that Hatnuah’s being the first party to join the coalition sent a message to other potential coalition partners. “All the extremism that gained expression last time doesn’t exist this time.”

Livni said she was persuaded, after speaking with Netanyahu several times after the election, that he understands the importance of the peace process.

“He is aware of Israel’s situation in the world. He is aware of the danger of international isolation. He understands the status quo cannot continue,” Livni said.

Likud officials in charge of coalition negotiations said that in agreeing to join the new government Hatnuah was the “first domino” to fall, with Shas and Kadima expected to follow.

Sources close to the Shas coalition negotiations told Haaretz that in the past 48 hours there has been significant progress in talks with the Likud team, but there are still substantial gaps, especially over plans to draft ultra-Orthodox men.

Meanwhile, Aryeh Deri of Shas congratulated Livni for joining the coalition. “Israel needs a government that will unite the,” he said in a statement from his office.

Likud sources said the deal with Hatnuah would also put pressure on Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi. They said Likud had made Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett a “generous offer” last week.

Some members of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu speculated Tuesday that Netanyahu may try to build a coalition of 57 MKs, including Shas, United Torah Judaism, Hatnuah and Kadima, and then give Habayit Hayehudi an ultimatum: Either join the government or call a new election.

They predicted Bennett would come crawling to Netanyahu, adding that Livni’s move severely weakened the bargaining positions of both Bennett and Yair Lapid.”

Yesh Atid leaders declined to comment Tuesday on Livni’s move. Sources in Habayit Hayehudi criticized Netanyahu, saying, “Handing responsibility for negotiations to an individual who had already negotiated the division of Jerusalem and was responsible for the [2005 Gaza Strip] disengagement plan will make the coalition negotiations more difficult.”

Meanwhile, Hatnuah No. 2 Amram Mitzna might resign from the Knesset if he does not receive a ministerial appointment, according to officials close to the negotiations. Sources within Hatnuah say Mitzna feels insulted by the agreement, which they say favors the appointment the party’s No. 3, Amir Peretz, as environmental protection minister.