JERUSALEM -- After winning the mandate to form a new government, Benjamin Netanyahu faces a seemingly intractable political paradox.
Netanyahu owes his mandate to the support of 65 right-wing Knesset members, but the last thing the Likud Party leader wants is a coalition of right-wing parties. He knows that a hard-line government in which Likud is weighed down by right-wing ideologues will not sit well with the international community. Netanyahu remembers how his first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, was undercut by a similar right-wing constellation.
The question is, will Netanyahu be able to make the huge ideological leap necessary to bring Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party into his coalition?
Livni is demanding that Netanyahu accept the principle of two states for two peoples in negotiations with the Palestinians. So far, Netanyahu has been unwilling to do that.
Another problem is the size of the coalition. If Netanyahu brings in Livni and keeps the right-wingers, he would have an unwieldy coalition of 93 of the 120 Knesset members. To pare it to more manageable proportions, he would have to drop either Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party, for a coalition of 78, or all or most of the religious parties. The latter would reduce his coalition to 70 or 81 if it includes the Orthodox Sephardic Shas party, to which Netanyahu reportedly is beholden.
In 1988, the Likud's Yitzhak Shamir found himself in a similar position. He jettisoned prior agreements with the right-wingers to form a national unity government with Labor, famously telling the hawkish Hatechiya's Yuval Neeman, who had a signed coalition document, to frame it and hang it on the wall.
Whether Netanyahu will be that single-minded and ruthless remains to be seen.
If he sticks with the right-wingers, Israel could be in for a rough ride overseas. The Europeans already have expressed two major concerns: that a narrow right-wing government will spell an end to peacemaking with the Palestinians, and that Lieberman's presence in the government could threaten Israeli democracy. Lieberman has proposed requiring loyalty oaths in a bid to curtail Israeli Arab political power.
For the time being, the new American administration is taking a wait-and-see attitude. But U.S. officials have been re-emphasizing Washington's commitment to a two-state solution.
On a visit to Israel last week that also included a trip to Gaza, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, hinted that there could be U.S. pressure down the road. On the key issues, Kerry said, it would be up to Israelis to decide, but that the United States would try to "steer" its ally in a direction that was good for Israel and the international community.