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Moderate shift seen for new Israel unity regime

A surprise unity government announced Tuesday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has many observers predicting that the new coalition will embark on a more moderate path, from reopening a dialogue with Palestinians to softening rhetoric on attacking Iran.

The stunning partnership with the opposition Kadima party was announced overnight Tuesday just as the nation was expecting Netanyahu to call early elections.

The addition of the centrist Kadima Party to what has been called one of Israel's most right-wing coalition governments gives Netanyahu a comfortable 78 percent majority in parliament, lessening the political clout of smaller right-wing parties and factions.

Those parties, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's nationalist Yisrael Beitinu and the ultra-Orthodox Shas, have dominated the government agenda for the last three years, including pushing to expand West Bank settlements, fighting efforts to demolish unauthorized outposts and passing laws that Arab Israelis say limit their civil rights.

Some observers predict that the hastily arranged deal will give Netanyahu the political breathing space he needs to push for more moderate policies, which those close to the prime minister insist reflect his personal views.

"This gives Netanyahu more liberty," said Zalman Shoval, a foreign policy adviser for the prime minister's Likud Party and former ambassador to the United States. "He's basically a centrist."

At a news conference Tuesday, Netanyahu said the new coalition will enable him to tackle the country's pressing issues, including pursuing a "responsible peace process." Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz vowed to "change the agenda."

But Israel's right-wing politicians expressed alarm. Lawmaker Danny Danon, who leads a conservative faction within Likud, expressed fears that Netanyahu might move to freeze Israel's settlement construction in the West Bank, a key Palestinian demand for restarting peace talks.

"This is going to push the government to the center and to the left, and I am going to lead the effort to make sure the government maintains the values of the nationalist camp," he said, adding that Israeli settlers "are very worried about this arrangement and fear the government will not support them."

Mofaz may also put the brakes on Netanyahu's public threats to attack Iran's purported nuclear arms program. In recent television interviews, he said the United States should lead any military strike and criticized the prime minister for "inflating" the immediate threat posed by Iran.

At the same time, however, analysts said that a unity government would provide Netanyahu with broader domestic support should he ultimately decide to strike Iran.