No reset for Obama-Netanyahu tensions with Israel's new right-wing government

Netanyahu forms new coalition government in Israel
Netanyahu forms new coalition government in Israel


    Netanyahu forms new coalition government in Israel


Netanyahu forms new coalition government in Israel 02:41

Washington (CNN)Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has finally got his government.

But a last minute shakeup is leaving him with a brittle coalition that could pull him further to the right on the very issues that have been at the center of Israel's tensions with the United States.
Netanyahu announced a 61-member coalition cobbled together hours before the deadline to form a new government Wednesday night -- the narrowest majority possible in the 120-member Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
    Netanyahu called the coalition a "beginning" on Wednesday, signaling that he would look to broaden the nascent government. But for now -- and likely the foreseeable future -- Netanyahu is stuck with a slapdash majority that could set him up for more confrontation with the Obama administration on issues like settlement building and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
    That's because, to make a coalition deal before the deadline expired, Netanyahu had to concede more power to the right-wing Jewish Home party. The faction is one of the strongest proponents of settlement-building and annexing parts of the West Bank, territory on which Palestinians hope to establish their own independent state, and the party will now control several key ministries.
    The other parties joining Netanyahu's Likud, all on the right, range from a center-right group of Likud defectors focused on economic issues to religious parties.
    The Jewish Home's big influence won't help Netanyahu's efforts to mend relations with the White House. Ties, never strong between the Israeli leader and his American counterpart, soured this spring after the prime minister warned of the dangers of Obama's negotiations with Iran in a speech to Congress, made a disparaging comment about Israeli Arabs in the final days of his campaign and even refuted his support for a two-state solution -- a disavowal he quickly walked back after surging to victory on the wings of strong right-wing support.

    Policies that anger the White House?

    The question now is whether Netanyahu can hold his coalition together without increasing settlement activity and angering the Obama administration, or if an emboldened right wing will bring him further to their side. Because the coalition is so narrow, any member of the ruling coalition can threaten to bring down the government if he or she jumps ship and joins the opposition.
    "I don't see the coalition fundamentally altering what is already an extremely tense and corrosive relationship between the prime minster and the president," said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator who served in Democratic and Republican administrations. "But the continuation of what I call this cold war or this kind of soap opera with very little predictability... that's going to continue."
    He pointed to the role of Jewish Home as a particular source of added tension.
    Jewish Home is among those in the new coalition making the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal -- long a central aim of the White House -- much less likely.
    With so many in the new Israeli government skeptical of the need to pursue negotiations, the Palestinians are also less likely to return to the negotiating table. They are already ratcheting up their efforts to make a press for statehood at the United Nations -- a press the U.S. has indicated would become increasingly difficult to stave off unless Israel takes new steps toward a peace agreement.
    The Palestinian Authority leadership quickly seized on news of the coalition's makeup to make its case that Israel is not a willing peace partner and that Palestinians need to intensify their efforts to forge a state through international organizations.
    "Congratulations Israel, your new government has ensured that peace is not on their agenda. This new right-wing, extremist government is not a partner for peace," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said in a statement. "We call on the international community to safeguard the two-State solution by stop treating Israel as a state above the law, support Palestinian rights and diplomatic initiatives."
    The right-wing bent of the new government could change, though, and there is already talk that Netanyahu could convince left or center-left parties to join his coalition. Netanyahu has historically preferred a more moderate government in his dealings with the international community, often giving politicians on the center and left a prominent foreign policy role.
    Netanyahu may look to bring Isaac Herzog, who has been the leader of the opposition and heads the center-left Zionist Union, into the fold -- he's keeping the plum foreign ministry position vacant for now, so it could be doled out to a new coalition partner -- but it's unclear if Herzog will want to join the coalition or instead capitalize on Netanyahu's fragile government as chief antagonist.
    Herzog would be a boon not only in smoothing over relations with the U.S. administration, but also in staving off sanctions from European countries and otherwise blunting the Palestinian push on the international stage.
    But even if the Zionist Union did join Netanyahu's Likud-led government -- likely pushing out Jewish Home -- ongoing tensions between Netanyahu and Obama aren't going to suddenly evaporate, according to David Makovsky, who previously served a stint on Secretary of State John Kerry's negotiating team.
    "It's hard to believe that at the end of the seventh year of an administration, there's suddenly going to be an epiphany," said Makovsky, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
    Still, he said, the heavily right-leaning coalition "certainly isn't going to improve" relations between the two countries.
    Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution agreed that ultimately the incoming coalition -- or even a future one including Herzog -- won't result in big changes in Israel's ties to the U.S.

    An intimate U.S.-Israel relationship

    "America has dealt with Israel intimately for decades now, and that included governments that were just as right-wing as this one," Sachs said.
    While the hardline members of Netanyahu's budding coalition will look to ramp up settlement activity, several experts said it's unlikely they'll be able to produce sweeping changes in that area without full buy-in from Netanyahu. On the other hand, since some settlement-building has continued under Netanyahu, the White House won't be up in arms over a slight increase so long as it doesn't go too far.
    And while the new coalition will feature controversial ministers known for making inflammatory statements about the Palestinians, the peace process and even African migrants, it won't be the first time Netanyahu's cabinet has been a source of controversy or provocative comments.
    Netanyahu's previous foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who was no stranger to controversy, will now be in the opposition.
    Beyond that, relations between the Israeli government and the White House have sunk so low in recent months that it seems unlikely that there will be a new decline.
    While a narrow, right-wing coalition will make for an even more intractable peace process -- something American presidents have often revived in the waning years of their tenure -- there's already little hope for any inroads on that front.
    Either way, the peace process is taking a backseat as the Obama administration's foreign policy team focuses on cinching a nuclear deal with Iran.
    "By and large we're going to see continuity -- which means by and large a very fraught relationship," Sachs said.