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A lesson in Middle East politics

Inside the Israeli and Palestinian leadership struggles

JERUSALEM — It’s never easy to get politicians to agree. When they’re Middle East politicians, forget about it.

That’s why the current coalition negotiations in Israel and the haggling over a so-called “unity government” among the Palestinians are so unedifying. It’s fair to say that everyone involved in these talks has so far made choices guaranteed to play badly on the international stage.

The major decisions are bad enough. Israel’s Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu intends to offer the post of foreign minister to Avigdor Lieberman, whose international image is, to say the least, hardline. The only member of the Palestinian government in whom international aid donors have even a shred of true confidence has been forced to resign (temporarily, he says) to soothe the Islamists of Hamas.

But the smaller stories are just as bemusing. Defense Minister Ehud Barak led Labor, historically Israel’s chief party and lately at least the second-biggest bloc in the Knesset (Israel's parliament), to fourth place in the Feb. 10 election with only 13 out of 120 parliamentary seats. Time to eschew the ministerial staffs and drivers, to rebuild while in the opposition, said his party colleagues. Well, Barak murmured, OK, unless Netanyahu offers me the defense ministry again…

Netanyahu is being forced toward a narrow right-wing coalition. He’s likely to have only 61 seats — a majority of one. That’ll leave him open to the kind of coalition blackmail at which Israeli politicians excel. It’s what brought him down at the end of his first term as prime minister in 1999.

The coalition is so narrow because Netanyahu doesn’t want to include the really right-wing parties (they want new settlements in the West Bank, and the U.S. won’t stand for that) and because centrist Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni would rather let him sweat over an unworkable selection of partners. She banks on one of them bolting before too long. In new elections, she wouldn’t be tainted by the likely ineffectiveness that will cling to a desperate Netanyahu.