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Can a Weakened Netanyahu Take a Swing at Mideast Peace?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seated, talks to ministers after posing for a group photo marking the formation of the new Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, Israel. Israel’s 33rd government was sworn in Monday after almost six weeks of negotiations to piece together a coalition government. Photo by Ronen Zvulun-Pool/Getty Images.

JERUSALEM — They’ve dressed up this timeless city for President Barack Obama’s arrival. Rabbinical student Inbar Shalem, waiting for a bus on King David Street yesterday, said she has high hopes for the president’s visit here tomorrow will bring. “We have a new government, and so does the United States. I hope it is a new beginning for the relationship,” she said. “And I hope that means we’ll see the peace process move faster and farther than it has in recent years.”

But the hopes of left-leaning Israelis like Shalem — that President Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel brings a new commitment to push the Israeli-Palestinian peace agenda — doesn’t take into account Netanyahu’s changed circumstances. In the eyes of many observers here, Netanyahu — whose new coalition government took office Monday after weeks of haggling — is weaker, not stronger, than he was before. And that could mean he has less room to maneuver on this historically-controversial and emotion-laded issue.

Yesh Atid Party leader Yair Lapid, left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Our Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, right, form the core leadership of Israel’s new coalition government. Photo of Lapid by Amir Cohen/Reuters; photo of Netanyahu by Ronen Zvulun-Pool/Getty Images; photo of Bennett by Amir Cohen/Reuters.

Imagine a shotgun marriage of convenience: that is perhaps an apt description of his new coalition government. Netanyahu has joined with two younger political newcomers who scored well in January’s elections — former TV host Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, and software entrepreneur Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing settler Our Jewish Home party. Both ran campaigns focused on domestic issues. And neither offers himself as an ally to move forward on the peace process front, even if President Obama urges Netanyahu to do so and Netanyahu is so inclined.

Lapid did endorse reopening negotiations, but the issue wasn’t anywhere near the top of his agenda, nor on his list of coveted cabinet posts. Bennett’s base is found in the Jewish settlements in the Palestinian Territories; his party landed the critical Housing Minister’s job.

What’s more, Netanyahu had to accede to their demands to put together the over-60 majority he needed to govern. At their insistence, he didn’t invite his longtime allies, the ultra-Orthodox, into the government. Netanyahu also has lost ground with the public since the election. His popularity rating has dropped, while Lapid’s and Bennett’s have surged. “He’s weaker in the eyes of his colleagues in the political system,” said leading Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea. “He lost votes. And in the coalition negotiations, he looked weak. It’s not enough to be prime minister.”

The prime minister’s office concedes Netanyahu didn’t get the defection-proof coalition he wanted. So if he makes a move strongly opposed by Bennett or Lapid , either one could leave the coalition and Netanyahu’s government would fall. But he has retained the title of prime minister for himself, and appointed longtime peace advocate Tzipi Livni to run the negotiations. So Netanyahu’s advisers insist he has room to maneuver — at least for a time — if he decides to move down the peace process track. He made prominent mention of “historic compromise” in his remarks Monday when the government was formed.

Bennett has said he won’t oppose renewing negotiations with the Palestinians , noted an Israeli official who has worked with Netanyahu, “so he won’t put a straitjacket around Bibi’s and Livni’s ability to negotiate.” The rub will come if Netanyahu decides to offer a confidence building measure of the kind the Obama administration is talking about privately — like announcing a temporary freeze on settlement building beyond the recognized settlement blocs.

“Jewish Home is a settler party. It’s not likely Bennett would agree to those restrictions,” said a Western diplomat here. “This is not a coalition that can do anything big on the Palestinian issue.” But Netanyahu’s advisers have a different reading on Bennett, viewing him as more of a pragmatic businessman than an ideologue. “His party has been in the political wilderness for years. Now they will have the benefits, and patronage, of being in government” the Israeli official said. “I don’t see Bennett throwing that away over a confidence building measure on settlements, at least not in the first year.”

On one point the doubters and the Netanyahu insider agree: with President Obama and new Secretary of State John Kerry focused on this issue, now is the time to act. “Right now the prime minister is surrounded by young Turks, but when it comes to diplomacy and security, he’s the seasoned one,” said the Netanyahu aide. “He has room to maneuver. But if it’s going to happen, it has to be in the next couple of months — or it’s not going to happen.”

The larger unknown is whether Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — both weakened politically — even want to take the risks of the give-and-take required to breathe life into the limp peace process patient. That’s the most pressing task facing President Obama in his three days in the region this week, to look each man in the eye and determine if the venture is promising enough for yet another American president to pursue.

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