Netanyahu Cancels Early Parliamentary Elections

On Monday, Israel announced it would hold early parliamentary elections. But in a stunning overnight turnaround, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled the vote and announced a new coalition government that will include the leader of the opposition Kadima Party. The surprise development has prompted a wave of speculation in Israel — much of it centered on the new coalition's policy toward Iran and its suspect nuclear program.

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And I'm Audie Cornish.

Now, a stunning turnaround in Israel. Yesterday on this program, we reported on an announcement of early parliamentary elections there. But, overnight, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled the vote. He then announced a new coalition government that will include the leader of the opposition Kadima Party.

The surprise development has prompted a wave of speculation in Israel, much of it centered on the new coalition's policy towards Iran and its suspect nuclear program.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us now on the line from Tel Aviv. And, Lourdes, to begin, how did this happen? What's behind this turnaround and this coming together of the opposition party with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Well, it happened in secret. They were in talks over the past few days, but nobody knew. It was completely unprecedented. It took everyone by surprise. And it was announced, sort of, overnight, and people woke up in the morning finding out that this had actually taken place.

One of the things that all Israeli commentators are saying, that this is a master stroke by Benjamin Netanyahu. Look, if he called early elections, he stood to do extremely well. Most people here feel that he is the right leader for the country, and his party, Likud, was going to sweep the polls. That said, with his new broad-based coalition, he has an unprecedented mandate.

The coalition will have a 94-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset, bringing in Israel's largest party and the opposition into the government. That pretty much allows him to do whatever he wants to do at this point.

CORNISH: And what's in it for the Kadima party then?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, Kadima, actually, was going to do very, very badly. Kadima is a party that was formed by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and has simply lost its way. It really has not found a voice. It recently ejected its longtime leader, Tzipi Livni, and it was standing to do very poorly in the polls. And so, by joining the government now, it's given it a new breath of life, if you will.

You have Shaul Mofaz, the leader of Kadima, now being able to go in the government, participate in the government and not have to face elections for at least another year.

CORNISH: And the biggest issue that people have been talking about has been about possible Israeli military strike on Iran's suspect nuclear installation. So what does this new coalition do for that in terms of making it anymore or less likely?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Everyone here is speculating. Let's start by saying we don't know if Israel can or will launch a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. But certainly, things have changed with this coalition. Israel now doesn't have to contend with an election season. It has an inclusive, stable government.

Speaking to that, Israel's environment minister, Gilad Erdan, said today, when a decision is taken to attack Iran or not, it is better to have a broad political front that unites the public. Some commentators have also noted that at crucial moments in Israel's history, for example, just before the 1967 Six-Day War, a national unity government was formed. That has some here reading the tea leaves and wondering if this is a potential sign that something is in the works.

CORNISH: You mentioned Shaul Mofaz, the head of Kadima. He's of Iranian descent, and he's come out vocally against a preemptive strike on Iran. So how much influence is he likely to have in this new coalition?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, he has spoken out about that in the past. He was born in Iran and has advocated a less hawkish approach, saying Israel should not go it alone against Iran but rather needs the backing of the international community. But let's not forget who he is. Mofaz is a career soldier who served as chief of staff when Ariel Sharon ordered the re-invasion of the West Bank in 2002 during the Second Intifada.

This is a military man. In fact, the nine-man Israeli cabinet, as it now stands, contains three former defense ministers. This is a cabinet that could go to war if it so chose.

CORNISH: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, thank you so much for talking with us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

CORNISH: Lourdes was telling us about a surprise announcement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He's canceled upcoming parliamentary elections and created a new coalition government.

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