JERUSALEM (AFP)---Israel's new unity government may strengthen the position of Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of a possible attack on Iran, analysts say, despite the fact the move was motivated by internal political issues.
The Prime Minister surprised the political establishment this week with the unexpected announcement that his Likud party had agreed a deal with Shaul Mofaz, leader of the opposition Kadima faction, to form a government of national unity, scotching plans for an early election.
The deal puts Netanyahu at the head of one of Israel's largest-ever ruling coalitions, with an overwhelming 94 votes in the 120-seat parliament.
This dramatic turn of events emerged largely as a result of the growing political difficulties Netanyahu faces within the ruling Likud.
Faced with a revolt by the more hardline fringe, Netanyahu opted for a political realignment rather than face off with the settler lobby, which has become increasingly disenchanted with his zigzags over settlement issues.
"This move spells trouble for the Jewish communities in Judaea and Samaria (West Bank) and further moves us away from the traditional values of the Likud upon which we were elected," complained Likud's parliamentary deputy speaker Danny Danon, one of the hardliners.
Several hours before the news of the deal broke, Israel's Supreme Court had ordered the government to stop prevaricating over its commitment to demolish the Ulpana settler outpost, and raze five structures there by July 1.
The order sent shockwaves through the settler community and placed Netanyahu in a bind: should he comply with the ruling and incur the wrath of Likud hardliners, or should he seek once again seek a way of avoiding the demolition.
"Both Bibi (Netanyahu) and Mofaz are in a difficult position, and the new government is a good solution for both of them," said Mark Heller, a political analyst at Tel Aviv Universitys Institute for National Security Studies.
"Bibi has a lot of trouble not so much with his coalition but within his own party. He needs to contain the hard right-wing of the Likud, especially on the settlement issue," he told AFP.
Mofaz was also struggling.
He took over as head of Kadima, the largest faction in parliament, just six weeks ago and found himself at the helm of a party in freefall. Repeated polls predicted it would be trounced in any election, seeing its 28 mandates reduced
to around 10.
"Mofaz would rather enter the government with Kadima's 28 seats now than wait for the next elections and become a junior partner in a coalition with only 10 or 11 seats," he said.
Israelis appeared to be divided over Netanyahu's decision to join up with Kadima, with a survey by the Maariv newspaper showing that 30.7 percent were in favour, 29.9 percent were against and 31 percent had no opinion.
Another poll in Israel HaYom newspaper found 39.6 percent backed the move and 31.9 percent opposed it, with 28.4 percent unsure, and a survey by Channel 10 television found 44 percent in favour, 37 percent opposed and 19 percent expressing no opinion.
Haaretz newspaper published its own survey in which it found only 23 percent believed the deal was motivated by the national interest, compared with 63 percent who said the deal was driven by personal and political reasons.
But analysts said they saw the possibility of a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities as a factor playing into Netanyahu's decision to cobble together what will be Israel's seventh national unity government.
Shmuel Sandler, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said Israel's options vis-a-vis Iran's contested nuclear programme had definitely played a role in Netanyahu's thinking.
"Netanyahu is very nervous about Iran. The Iranian issue does play a role in the formation of this new government, even if it's not the only reason for the decision," he told AFP.
"An Israeli attack will be easier with such a big unity government, but I don't think that the decision has been taken yet. It will depend on the efficiency of the sanctions and the result of the American elections."
Netanyahu has made the fight to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons his top priority and has openly questioned the effectiveness of the tough regime of international sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic.
For Haaretz commentator Ari Shavit, Netanyahu's move to bring Mofaz into his government has one clear aim.
"Its real goal is Iran," he wrote.
"It creates a firm political foundation on which to conduct the strategic sparring with (Iranian supreme leader) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The national unity government provides domestic and international legitimacy to the anticipated confrontation.
"Instead of pre-Iran elections, we get pre-Iran unity, which does the same thing. Instead of a two-month window of opportunity: Sept-Oct 2012, we get a four-month one: July-October 2012."