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JERUSALEM – After a strong performance in last week's parliamentary election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be cruising toward forming a new government of hard-line and religious parties. But in the smoke-and-mirrors world of Israeli politics, a centrist government more amenable to peace negotiations could easily emerge at the last minute instead.
With his "natural partners," Netanyahu could control a comfortable 67-seat majority in parliament — but such a government would probably set on a collision course with the international community. Already the talk is of more settlement construction in the West Bank, steps against foreign advocacy groups that support the Palestinians or the opposition, and a renewed push for a law formalizing Israel as a Jewish state despite the large Arab minority.
Calls are mounting for an alternative. President Reuven Rivlin, expected to formally task Netanyahu with forming a coalition on Wednesday, has made national unity a priority and has called for "as wide a coalition as possible to ensure representation of all groups in Israeli society.
For now, both Netanyahu and his chief adversaries — the centrist Zionist Union and Yesh Atid parties — are saying a "unity government" is out of the question. The bruising campaign featured harsh personal attacks on all sides, and bad feelings linger. In the final days, Netanyahu made strident appeals to his base that have saddled him with accusations of racism against Israel's 2 million Arab citizens and of abandoning his previously stated support for an eventual Palestinian state. On both counts he has been trying in vain to apologize and backtrack, adding to the charged atmosphere. After such a divisive period, there seems to be little appetite to reconcile.
Yet this could all change in the coming weeks as Netanyahu cobbles together his coalition, potential partners make demands for government ministries, his opponents ponder four long years in the opposition and the world community makes clear how dimly it would view a government cool to making concessions for peace.
Here are some reasons why the Israeli government may end up looking far different than widely expected:
RELIEVING INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE
Netanyahu came under heavy international criticism for campaign rhetoric that was seen as racist and anti-peace. Although Netanyahu has claimed his comments were misunderstood, the White House remains unconvinced, and President Barack Obama is threatening to reassess American policy toward Israel.
The possibilities for harassing Israel are great, beginning with U.S. removing its near-automatic veto on anti-Israel maneuvers at the U.N. Security Council, probably clearing the way for world recognition of a Palestinian state on all lands the Palestinians seek. And if the United States sends the signal, the floodgates could open for real. Israel could face constant pressure at other international bodies as well as from the European Union. International boycott movements are primed to spring into action, imports on goods made in Israel's West Bank settlements could be banned and Israeli officers and officials could be denied entry at various ports of call.
None of this would likely occur if the government were instead composed of centrist parties plus Netanyahu's Likud — with the prime minister once again proclaiming his theoretical support of Palestinian independence. His Likud Party colleagues — most of them opponents of Palestinian statehood — would be muttering and peeved. But they would be Cabinet ministers, some in position to continue the settlement of the occupied territories with the same machinations that have deposited nearly 600,000 Jews on occupied land to this day, most of them in the years since the peace process first began two decades ago.
While the personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu seems badly and maybe irreparably harmed, in the grand scheme of things, a centrist government might enable the storm clouds to pass.
THE HAPLESS OPPOSITION
Israel's moderate Labor Party — now rebranded as the Zionist Union — has won two elections outright in the past four decades, in 1992 and 1999. Each time it loses, its leaders face the same cruel choice: Try to rebuild in opposition, or agree to join Likud in a "broad-based" government of "unity."
Some moderates, angry at the outcome of the vote, are urging their leaders to let the nationalists rule in peace, so that the people may understand what they have done. But the lure of unity is tempting. On one hand, despite the loss, one sits in government; and on the other, there is a strong sense of damage control — a genuine sense by the moderates that they must contain the hard-line agenda of building settlements that would deepen Israel's isolation and cause damage in a variety of ways.
The prospect of a return to power at the ballot box is in any case fading a little in light of last week's loss, which was crushing after some unusually high hopes. Surveys had shown most Israelis to be sick of Netanyahu and a stunning parade of top Israeli security beseeched voters to end his reign. The cost of living seemed to leave masses of Israelis in despair and small scandals piled on as well. The last polls, four days before the vote, augured very well indeed. But at the last minute, with Netanyahu sounding the alarm on TV and radio, masses of Likud voters rallied back to base.
Isaac Herzog, the head of the Zionist Union, has particular cause for concern. Many are wondering how they ever thought that Herzog, slight of frame and high-pitched of voice, could wrest the leadership in such a security-obsessed nation. If he wishes to survive politically, a unity government may be the ticket — even if for the moment claiming otherwise is key.
HE'S DONE IT BEFORE
Netanyahu is forming his third consecutive government, and he has a history of bringing in centrist partners — suggesting he, too, has little wish to carry out Likud policy to the full. In 2009, he made Labor Party leader Ehud Barak his defense minister, and in 2013 he brought in dovish ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni to be his chief peace negotiator. These people gave Netanyahu's government international respectability and helped shield him from global criticism for hard-line policies toward the Palestinians — exactly according to plan. Herzog or Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid could play similar roles this time around.
A CLAMOR FOR UNITY
Following an especially polarizing election campaign, Netanyahu is under pressure to repair the rifts in Israeli society. In a first step, Netanyahu apologized Monday for what he acknowledged were offensive comments about Arab voters. Leading Arab politicians swiftly rejected his call.
There has also been unseemly sniping in recent days between European-descended Jews — moderates mostly — and Sephardi Jews of Middle Eastern descent who heavily back Likud. The former stand accused of elitism and an inability to communicate — and the latter of tribalism, voting against their own interests and dooming Israel to destruction. Tensions between religious Jews — part of Netanyahu's traditional bloc — and secular ones who dominate the moderate camp have flared up as well.
As the dust settles and tempers cool in the coming weeks, Netanyahu may be looking for a magic bullet to unify the nation once more.
Dan Perry is The Associated Press Middle East editor leading text coverage in the region. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/perry_dan
Josef Federman is the AP's bureau chief in Jerusalem. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/joseffederman