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(photo credit: AP)
US officials are publicly taking a wait-and-see approach to the formation of a new Israeli government, but privately many have expressed concern that Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu might preside over a right-wing coalition.
"There would be great unease" at the prospect of such a government, said one Capitol Hill source.
He predicted that a governing coalition of parties from the Right could embolden the left flank of the Democratic party and turn up pressure, particularly in the US Congress, to pass measures that made clear demands on Israel.
He distinguished, however, between a Netanyahu-led right-wing coalition and Netanyahu-led national unity government.
Despite the Likud's second-place finish to the centrist Kadima party, parties on the Right won more of the vote, which means Netanyahu might have an easier time forming a hawkish coalition but could try to work out a formula for a unity government, as could Kadima head Tzipi Livni.
The Capitol Hill source, who didn't want to be identified speaking about another country's internal politics, noted that Netanyahu had made a strong effort to reach out to the Obama administration and made the case to the US and the Israeli public that he could work with the White House.
He said that attitude could help assuage US concerns when presented in a national-unity package, whose positions - whether under Netanyahu or Livni - would be more in line with the US's own policies of engagement on Arab-Israeli reconciliation.
"The hope is that there is a government that is really committed to peace with the Palestinians," The Washington Post quoted one senior administration official saying.
Even if Netanyahu prevails, the official added, "he's grown over the years. Getting back to the talks with the Palestinians is really the only solution."
Ron Dermer, a senior adviser to Netanyahu, said Wednesday that the Likud leader strongly preferred to put together a national-unity government that looked toward the center of the country's political spectrum rather than a right-wing coalition.
"He's said his biggest mistake when he was prime minister last time was not reaching out to Shimon Peres," who then headed the Labor party, Dermer said on a conference call with the United Jewish Communities and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "I do not believe he will make the same mistake this time.
"I very much hope that Tzipi Livni will put politics aside" to sit in a Likud-led government, Dermer added.
Still, many political analysts say there's no doubt the Obama administration would prefer to see a national-unity government headed by Livni.
"The impression in Israel is that the Obama administration has already made its preference known and that its preference is for Kadima - and that impression isn't going anywhere," said Georgetown University professor and Israel expert Michael Oren.
"They'd rather work with a centrist government than a right-wing government."
He added that the preference of the Obama camp, with its interest in intensive diplomacy, was "legitimate," noting that many Israelis preferred Republican presidential candidate John McCain because they observed a greater alignment of views.
When it comes to Livni, the administration sees someone who has spent the last year working with the Palestinians as part of a negotiating process and made the two-state solution an important part of her campaign, while Netanyahu has been much more circumspect on the extent of his support for that formulation, focusing his campaign on the need for security.
And while Netanyahu did sign agreements that gave control of West Bank areas to the Palestinians as prime minister in the late '90s, he had a troubled relationship with many of the American officials who served under then president Bill Clinton, several of whom are returning to office under Obama.
Dennis Ross, Clinton's Middle East envoy and likely to be a top regional representative, described Netanyahu as "overcome by hubris" after his first election to the premiership and recalled him being "nearly insufferable, lecturing and telling us how to deal with the Arabs" in his book on the Oslo peace process.
Still, publicly US officials are welcoming the Israeli democratic process and indicating their readiness to work with whoever becomes prime minister.
"This is a choice these Israeli people will have to make. Once that new government is formed, regardless of who is in that government, we will work with that government," said US State Department Acting Spokesman Robert Wood on Wednesday.
"We look forward to working with that new government once it's formed. We have a robust agenda with the government of Israel, as you know. And so we're looking forward to getting down to business with the new government."
When questioned about whether a government with right-wing leadership would hurt American peace efforts, Wood responded, "We certainly hope that a new government will continue to pursue a path to peace. I see no reason to think that a new government would do something otherwise."
He added that he knew of no change to Middle East envoy George Mitchell's plans to make his second visit to Israel at the end of the month.
"The administration is being very cautious," said an Israeli official about the silence from US officials right now.
He noted that regardless of their views, they understood that they could have to work with both leaders and didn't want to prejudice either relationship.
Oren said the US leadership had done better at keeping a lid on its feelings than many previous US and Israeli governments.
"This administration is more constrained and more controlled in saying whom they prefer," he said.
He added that if the US expressed its preference for Livni too loudly, it could backfire and hurt her position. He compared the situation to the boost in the polls Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman received from the police's pursuit of corruption charges, since some of his supporters felt he was being unfairly targeted.
"It could boomerang, just like Lieberman picked up [support] from the police investigation," he said.
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