Israeli PM presents Livni with a dilemma

Accepting Netanyahu's offer could bolster the Palestinian peace process but could also cause the break-up of Kadima.

The Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni has said she is considering the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's invitation.
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Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader and a former foreign minister, was yesterday considering an offer by Benjamin Netanyahu, to join his governing coalition. Mr Netanyahu made the surprise offer at the end of a routine security briefing late on Thursday, but some were already criticising the move as a political gambit to break up Ms Livni's moderate Kadima party.

Speaking at her party's headquarters, Ms Livni did not reject the offer outright. "I am not slamming the door, and I am taking it seriously," the Jerusalem Post yesterday quoted her as saying. "I told Netanyahu that if this offer is part of his effort to crumble Kadima, I won't be part of that game." The move does however put Ms Livni, who took over leadership of Kadima when Ehud Olmert announced he was stepping down amid charges of corruption, at a political crossroads.

Accepting the offer could, in principle, prove a boon to the stalled Palestinian peace process, in which Ms Livni was a chief negotiator, despite Kadima's launch of the Gaza offensive one year ago this week. Ms Livni rejected a similar offer in March, just after the parliamentary elections, citing political differences. While Kadima has always supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr Netanyahu, who leads the right-wing Likud, only announced in June tentative support for a demilitarised Palestinian state, with many restrictions on its sovereignty.

Mr Netanyahu's policy concessions, including a 10-month moratorium on settlement building that is unpopular within his coalition, has painted Ms Livni into a corner, according to analysts. "Netanyahu is a seasoned politician. He's not a great statesman, but politics he understands", said Yossi Mekelberg, a Middle East expert and associate fellow at Regent's College in Chatham House. Likud could now ask: "What's your problem? Why are you not in?" he said.

On the other hand, the implications for the Palestinian peace process were likely to be minimal. "In principle, having more people from Kadima that are more moderate can help," said Mr Mekelberg. "But the peace process lying barely alive in front of us - the resuscitation needs more than a few members of Kadima in the coalition." But rejecting Mr Netanyahu's offer, which was criticised by some as subversive and flippant, could cause serious rifts in Kadima, which is already beset by defections and an internal power struggle.

Kadima members joining the Likud coalition could serve to dilute the hardline camp within the government, which has brought Mr Netanyahu under increased pressure after his temporary settlement halt. It could also strengthen his hand in peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, which has so far rejected any talks in the absence of a complete settlement freeze in the West Bank. "If he decides to move on the peace process and make concessions that are unacceptable to the [hardline] Yisrael Beitenu Party or part of the Likud party, he has the Kadima backup," said Mr Mekelberg.

But some have already rejected the offer as a mere political ploy. "I don't think it was a serious offer," said Gershon Baskin, the co-head of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, a joint institute of Israeli and Palestinian academics and intellectuals that supports the two-state solution. "If Netanyahu were serious he would have been holding direct back channel talks with Livni and not through the media. He is trying to split Kadima and to increase the impression that Livni is not a leader."

Dr Baskin said Mr Netanyahu's ability to paint Ms Livni into a political corner was a sign of the depth of the opposition's failure. Kadima has failed to differentiate itself from Likud in terms of actual policies. "She has failed in her position of being head of the opposition, which she failed to understand is an important part of Israeli democracy," he said. "She has failed because there is no real difference between her and Netanyahu or between the Likud and Kadima."

Ms Livni could yet avoid an exodus of Kadima members by taking a "principled opposition" to Mr Netanyahu's policies. "She needs to say, I have a viable centrist policy that represents the opposition - we are moderate, liberals, we want peace, we are ready to discuss everything," said Mr Mekelberg. Kadima has so far survived Likud rule, but "I think this is, in football terms, crunch time," he said.