Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who met recently in Israel with Benjamin Netanyahu, said today he was "very impressed" with what he heard from the man who's been asked to form Israel's next government.

At the same time, the senator is "not optimistic" about the likely configuration of Netanyahu's coalition government.


"It's going to be a right wing government, and I think Israel needs a centrist government," said Cardin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

Cardin was critical of the involvement of Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu, an extreme right-wing party, who has demanded that Israel's Arab citizens sign a loyalty oath to Israel.

"It's hard to figure out who Lieberman is," said Cardin. "He borders on racism. It's not healthy to have somebody like that in (Netanyahu's) government."

The Maryland Democrat said Netanyahu "clearly, in my view, undertands that he has an opportunity. He certainly was conciliatory from the point of view of trying to find a common thread in dealing with the Palestinians."

Netanyahu's strategy for dealing with the Palestinians is opposed by many in Israel, including Kadmia, the centrist party of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, which defeated Netanyahu's right-of-center Likud party in elections earlier this month but failed to gain enough votes to form a government.

Livni's party has been leading peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu, who led Israel in the late 1990s, wants to deal first with Palestinian economic development as a confidence-building measure before moving to more contentious issues.

Cardin said he thought that President Barack Obama's administration will do everything it can to work with Netanyahu, even analysts have said Obama's efforts to make progress on Middle East peace will be complicated by the rise of a conservative government in the Jewish state.

"The United States will play the cards that are dealt," the senator said. "The United States will say that, at times, it's the improbable that brings about things that people don't expect . . So maybe Netanyahu will bring about peace with the Palestinians."

He also thought that Obama's special envoy for the Middle East, former Sen. George Mitchell, will try to achieve some early victories as he attempts to break a stalemate over the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians.

But Cardin also said that "the first issue is settlements, and I think that's where they'll have a problem," Cardin said.

Cardin spoke by phone from Vienna, where he completed two days of meetings as head of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

In Vienna, he addressed members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly about Obama's plan to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

"It is my hope that these measures will help restore faith in the United States as a friend, ally and leader in the global community. If the United States wants to lead, we must lead by example," the senator said, according to a text of his remarks released by his office.

The senator and his wife Myrna were part of a taxpayer-funded trip that included a half-dozen members of Congress and staff aides. In addition to Jerusalem, the group visited the Palestinian terroritory on the West Bank and Syria. Cardin also visited Slovakia during the Austrian leg of his trip.