The Coalition Talks / Courting Netanyahu

The political partnership between Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak results not from mutual affection, but from the necessities of survival. And the deal that appeared to be emerging between them yesterday evening testifies mostly to their mutual distrust.

Livni knows that given Israel's system of government, the defense minister for all practical purposes has a veto over the prime minister's decisions. Therefore, the draft version of the coalition agreement states that no decision will brought before the cabinet unless the two agree.

This agreement simply codifies the existing situation in writing: Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert frequently complains that the security cabinet has been paralyzed by Barak's refusal to hold discussions in this forum. Barak justifies his position by a fear of leaks, but in actuality he was signaling to Olmert, the cabinet and the public who really held power. This time, however, he insisted on getting it in writing.

The media loves coalitions between political rivals, as each side provides a constant flow of information about the other. There is no doubt that this will continue under the new government: Livni is forming a coalition with the man who brought about Olmert's downfall, and Barak is joining a government led by Kadima, which threatens to wipe the Labor Party out of existence.

Only one of the partners will find itself whole at the end of the arrangement: Either Kadima will swallow Labor, or Barak will succeed in destroying Kadima and place himself at the head of a center-left coalition in the next elections.

This is the real reason why Livni has consistently urged Benjamin Netanyahu to join her government. In a speech last week, Livni called for "political and economic stability" and emphasized the need to "manage" the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, rather than reaching a quick agreement, as Olmert proposes. Stability is a synonym for lack of diplomatic progress. Livni, it seems, feels that there is no chance of an agreement with either the Palestinians or the Syrians in the near future, so she is better off forming an "emergency government" that would focus on the economy and the Iranian threat.

Barak wants Netanyahu, too, otherwise he will be stuck in a narrow, left-wing coalition. And Netanyahu? He insists he will not join such a government. The agreement with Barak is thus meant to convince Netanyahu that elections are not around the corner, so unless it joins the government, Likud will continue languishing in opposition.