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Israel's unity government: How big was the shift to the center?

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At the same time, however, Netanyahu dispatched his personal envoy to Ramallah over the weekend to deliver a letter to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Israel remains committed to establishing a Palestinian state. And on Monday, he agreed to ease the conditions of Palestinian prisoners and release 100 bodies of militants killed by Israel, as a gesture to Mr. Abbas that he was serious about talks.

Despite that, Israel Waisner-Manor, a political science professor from the University of Haifa, says he expects no major change in government policy on the peace process.

"I doubt that Netanyahu would suddenly become a dove because [Kadima] joined the coalition,’’ he says. "But he also doesn’t want to be perceived as someone who doesn’t seek out negotiations.’’

By bringing in Kadima and its leader, Shaul Mofaz, as a deputy prime minister, Netanyahu boosted his coalition from 66 seats to 94 seats of the 120 member parliament. That means that no single political party can bring down the government on its own, giving Netanyahu new freedom to pursue his avowed support for a Palestinian state. During his first three years in office, he was seen as too dependent on hard-liners to risk his political future on the issue.

Still, the grass roots of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party has seen an influx of religious Jewish settlers, who are opposed to compromise and likely to come out strongly against any signs of pragmatism. Any serious progress toward and agreement with the Palestinians is likely to cause a rebellion among Netanyahu’s core supporters.

"I don’t see Netanyahu getting close to even the minimal conditions of [Abbas],’’ says Akiva Eldar, a political columnist for the liberal Haaretz newspaper. "They are negotiating with themselves.’’

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