TEL AVIV // On the eve of the first visit to the Middle East by Hillary Clinton since she became US secretary of state, Israel is closer to forming a hardline government expected to hamper US-led peace efforts in the region. Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish Likud leader and the designated prime minister, failed on Friday to reach an agreement with Tzipi Livni, the head of the Kadima movement and his chief rival for the premiership, on joining forces in a unity government.
With Kadima now probably out of his coalition, Mr Netanyahu in the coming days is due to begin constructing his future cabinet. That task could prove especially tricky with assigning someone to the foreign ministry. Avigdor Lieberman, the anti-Arab leader of the nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu, is believed to have his eyes set on the portfolio. The key point of contention between Ms Livni and Mr Netanyahu centres on how to approach tackling the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ms Livni, who supports the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and who has stated her refusal to serve as the fig leaf for a government engaging in "diplomatic paralysis", said the 90-minute talk with Mr Netanyahu in Tel Aviv "concluded without agreement on key issues". Mr Netanyahu is believed to have refused Ms Livni's demand to endorse an independent Palestinian state or continue the peace process based on talks that were renewed at the US-backed Annapolis summit in Nov 2007.
Although analysts said Ms Livni has not completely shut the door on joining Mr Netanyahu's government, she is now most likely to head the opposition. Her rejection forces Mr Netanyahu to turn to the religious and nationalist parties that would provide him the only chance to form a governing coalition, albeit with only a narrow 65-member majority of Israel's 120-member parliament. Such a government is expected to resist making substantial concessions for peace with the Palestinians or with Syria, openly expand Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, threaten to infringe on the rights of Israel's Palestinian citizens and continue a crippling economic blockade on the impoverished Gaza Strip.
Such policies may lead to clashes with the US administration of Barack Obama, who has promised to become "aggressively" involved in pushing for Middle East peace. Mrs Clinton is arriving in the region this week for a visit in Egypt, Israel and the West Bank to attend a donor's conference to rebuild Gaza and assess Israeli-Palestinian peace chances. Given Mr Netanyahu's reliance on hardline partners to form a government, his resistance to Ms Livni's demands is hardly surprising. After all, he has to appease the parties that supported his nomination for prime minister and without which he would not be able to return to the job from which he was ousted 10 years ago.
The parties include the pro-settler Jewish Home and National Union, which have demanded in the coalition talks that Mr Netanyahu commit his opposition to Palestinian statehood, allow the legalisation of unauthorised Jewish outposts in the West Bank and back the expansion of existing settlements. Some analysts said Mr Netanyahu is worried that Ms Livni's demand that he endorse a two-state solution is a bid to chip away at his parliamentary support and obtain his agreement for a rotational government, in which the Likud and Kadima leaders would each serve for two years as prime minister. "The moment he utters the words 'Palestinian state', the National Union and the Jewish Home would escape from him with terrified screams," wrote Yossi Verter, a columnist for Haaretz, the left-wing daily newspaper, last weekend. "From the 65 [parliamentary members supporting him] only 58 would remain. He would lose the majority and Livni could then demand a full and equal rotation."
Indeed, while Ms Livni backs Palestinian statehood, she herself has achieved little in advancing that plan during her current term as foreign minister. She led negotiations for more than a year with the western-backed Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, but they have shown few tangible results. Furthermore, the construction of Jewish settlements has steadily continued even during the talks.
Mr Netanyahu has sought to allay US fears that a hawkish government may disrupt the peace process. In a meeting on Thursday with George Mitchell, Mr Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, Mr Netanyahu said his government would "advance the peace process with the Palestinians in its own way" and added that "we will respect all of Israel's international commitments and won't embark on actions that will contradict them". Mr Netanyahu has said he prefers to focus on improving the Palestinian economy and institutions in the West Bank instead of continuing talks on a two-state solution.
By appointing Mr Lieberman foreign minister, however, Mr Netanyahu is likely to draw criticism abroad because Mr Lieberman has been dubbed a racist for advocating that Israel's Palestinian citizens take a loyalty oath to the country or lose their citizenship, and also supports transferring Israeli areas heavily populated by Palestinians to a future Palestinian state. In an indication that Mr Lieberman is preparing the ground by attempting to soothe US fears over such an appointment, he wrote in a column published in The Jewish Week newspaper in New York on Wednesday that he "welcomed the contribution of minorities to Israel's flourishing" and did not expect Israeli Palestinians "to share in the Zionist dream", though he asked them to accept Israel as a Jewish state.
He also openly declared that he backs the "creation of a viable Palestinian state", for which he has indicated his support in the past. Mr Netanyahu may resist tapping him as foreign minister, but Mr Lieberman's demands will be difficult to reject. His party occupies 15 parliamentary seats and is set to be the Likud's biggest coalition partner. firstname.lastname@example.org