Almost six weeks after the Israeli election, it has yet to result in the formation of a new government. Benyamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party and prime minister-designate, has been given an additional fortnight to put together a coalition.

This might seem unnecessary: with four religious and hard-right parties as committed partners, Likud is already assured of a majority (65 out of 120 seats). Yet Netanyahu is seeking further allies; having been turned down by the centrist Kadima, he is still keen to attract the centre-left Labour Party — even though that would inevitably involve some compromise on his hard-line agenda.

The truth seems to be that at some level Netanyahu has doubts about his own promises. Since its formation, Likud has campaigned on a program of annexing the West Bank and denying any political identity to the Palestinians. But its leaders have also shown a degree of pragmatism once in office; it was Likud’s Menachem Begin who returned the Sinai peninsula to Egypt, and Netanyahu himself can be seen on film shaking hands with Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Wye River agreement.

Educated in the United States, Netanyahu is closely identified with the neoconservative worldview, but an Israeli leader is in a very different position to an American policymaker. While George Bush’s neocons were able to indulge their geopolitical fantasies by means of the world’s largest military machine, Netanyahu will have to cope in a hostile neighborhood and with less than unconditional support from Barack Obama.

Gideon Levy (with whom I was once flatteringly compared) put his finger on it in Haaretz just after the election. “Now, at the moment of truth, when [Netanyahu] has the ability to implement his ideology, he has gotten cold feet and wants to dilute his government with components that are alien to his doctrine. … He wants Kadima and Labor in his government to hold him back”.

A narrow right-wing government would have to drive Hamas from power, assassinate its leaders, expand the West Bank settlements, repudiate negotiations with Syria, maybe even bomb Iran — or else risk the wrath of its supporters by trying to compromise on those policies.

Moreover, such a coalition would not be a harmonious place; the secular racists of Yisrael Beiteinu have little in common with the ultra-orthodox religious parties. As Tolstoy might have said, all moderates resemble one another, but each extremist is extreme in his or her own way.

Meanwhile it’s been left to Hamas to utter some uncomfortable truths.

The group’s political leader, Khaled Mashal, told an Italian newspaper at the weekend that “The great powers need us to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict,” and that negotiations with Hamas were only “a matter of time.”

But in a region where time is measured in millennia, don’t hold your breath.

Peter Fray

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