Netanyahu surprise gives Israel grand coalition

JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a unity government today in a surprise move that could give him a freer hand to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and seek peace with the Palestinians.

The coalition deal, negotiated secretly over the past days and sealed at a private meeting overnight, means the centrist Kadima party will hook up with Netanyahu’s rightist coalition, creating a majority of 94 of parliament’s 120 legislators.

The coalition, which replaces plans announced just two days earlier for a snap election in September, will be one of the biggest in Israeli history.

“This government is good for security, good for the economy and good for the people of Israel,” Netanyahu told a joint news conference with Kadima’s leader, Shaul Mofaz.

The new coalition would focus on sharing out the duty of military conscription among all Israelis, redrawing the national budget and advancing electoral reform, he said.

Ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition had opposed plans to extend conscription to their supporters, who are now exempt.

“Lastly it is to try to advance a responsible peace process … Not all has been agreed but we have a very strong basis for continued action,” the prime minister said, adding that he hoped the Palestinians would “spot the opportunity and come sit with us for serious negotiations”.

“Of course one of the important issues is Iran,” Netanyahu added in response to a question.

Environment Minister Gilad Erdan said the accord would help build support for potential action against Iran’s atomic programme, which Israel views as an existential threat.

“An election wouldn’t stop Iran’s nuclear programme. When a decision is taken to attack or not, it is better to have a broad political front, that unites the public,” he told Israel Radio.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to “use the opportunity provided by the expansion of its coalition government” to expedite a peace accord.

“This requires an immediate halt to all settlement activity throughout the Palestinian Territories,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said. “The new coalition government needs to be a coalition of peace and not a coalition for war.”

Peace talks have been suspended for 18 months in a dispute over Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank and Palestinians say they cannot resume unless such construction is frozen. Netanyahu has called for talks without preconditions.

“Entering peace negotiations was an iron condition for forming the unity government,” Mofaz said.

The coalition accord says the new administration will “work towards the resumption of the peace process and promoting talks with the Palestinian Authority”.

But it also noted “the importance of maintaining defensible borders”, a phrase Netanyahu has used in the past to deflect Palestinian demands for extensive Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, territory captured in a 1967 war.

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