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Analysis: Israel's unwieldy government

Netanyahu Government at the Peres residence in Jerusalem on 1 April
Mr Netanyahu's cabinet is the biggest in Israel's political history

By Paul Wood
Middle East correspondent

Some political analysts have been known to call Israel's electoral system the worst-designed in the democratic world.

It took Benjamin Netanyahu a marathon seven weeks of negotiating to stitch together his governing coalition.

It was no surprise that he looked a little weary at the podium in the Knesset, or parliament, last night.

COALITION MEMBERS
Likud: 27 seats, 15 ministers
Yisrael Beiteinu 15 : 5 ministers
Labour: 13 seats, 5 ministers
Shas: 11 seats, 4 ministers
Jewish Home: 3 seats, 1 minister
United Torah Judaism: 5 seats

The last two weeks of that effort was concerned with bringing the Labour party into the government.

Mr Netanyahu knew that an administration perceived as narrowly right-wing would cause Israel problems internationally.

The result has been one of the biggest governments in Israel's history. They even had to bring carpenters into the Knesset to enlarge the cabinet meeting table.

Not everyone is happy, including members of his own Likud party who have seen their own ministerial ambitions shunted aside.

Last-minute meetings were held through the early hours of the previous night so Mr Netanyahu could assuage his colleagues' bruised feelings.

As he announced the long, long list of his new ministers to the Knesset, he was heckled by those who think the government is just too big.

Opposition MKs ironically called out, "seven, eight, nine... " each time Mr Netanyahu added a new minister to the list.

"Oh, they know how to count," he fired back.

'Go to hell'

Mr Netanyahu's big tent now encompasses Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the hard-line Yisrael Beitainu party, and Israel's new foreign minister.

Already there have been unhelpful rumblings in Egypt, one of only two Arab countries with which Israel has managed to make peace.

Mr Lieberman's offence was to tell the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, to "go to hell" last year.

Avigdor Lieberman 30 March
Mr Lieberman's appointment as foreign minister has rankled Arab states

Mr Lieberman has toned down the rhetoric since the election. Mr Netanyahu, too, was on a charm offensive in the Knesset.

He promised that Middle East peace negotiations would continue.

Of course, it will not have passed unnoticed that he failed to say that such a peace would be based on the two-state solution.

Mr Netanyahu opposes a sovereign Palestinian state, arguing that the West Bank could become a launch pad for rockets which would threaten Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion airport.

This opposition to the two-state solution potentially puts him on a collision course with Washington and the rest of the international community.

Testing times

Perhaps the most significant part of the incoming prime minister's speech was his oblique reference to Iran's supposed ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons.

In an apparent reference to Tehran, Mr Netanyahu said the biggest threat to Israel and the world came from "the possibility of a radical regime armed with nuclear weapons".

Israeli military intelligence assesses that Iran is close to getting the bomb. Mr Netanyahu feels strongly that this cannot be allowed to happen.

Iran, meanwhile, says its nuclear technology is being developed purely for peaceful purposes.

So, although Mr Netanyahu was careful to say to the Knesset that Israel's existence was not in jeopardy, he believes these will be testing times for the country.

In these circumstances, he wanted a government of national unity. He didn't get it, but did achieve something close.

Now the challenge - thanks to Israel's electoral system - will be keeping it together.



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