Netanyahu gets nod to form new Israeli government

Netanyahu, who was tapped by President Shimon Peres, has six weeks to form a coalition government.

JERUSALEMBenjamin Netanyahu urged his top rivals on Friday to join his government after he was formally tapped to put together the country’s next coalition – a tricky alliance that would dilute the power of nationalists opposed to Mideast peace talks but team him up with politicians far more moderate than he is.

Mr. Netanyahu opposes sweeping territorial concessions to the Palestinians and wants to expand Jewish West Bank settlements, but embracing centrist factions would give him a more stable government and international support. The alternative would be a narrow coalition of rightwingers sure to collide with the Obama administration and its ambitious plans for ending 60 years of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

“I call on the members of all the factions ... to set politics aside and put the good of the nation at the center,” Netanyahu said during a brief ceremony at President Shimon Peres’s residence in Jerusalem, where he was officially assigned the coalition-building task.

In his appeal, Netanyahu singled out “first and foremost” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, head of the governing Kadima party, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, chairman of the Labor Party. Ms. Livni, the key to a broad-based government, indicated she might be willing to come on board. But because Kadima retained its position as Israel’s largest party in Feb. 10 elections, she would certainly exact a high price: sharing the premiership she so fervently sought with Netanyahu, who doesn’t want to serve for only half a term.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said any future Israeli government that doesn’t accept the establishment of a Palestinian state and continues settlement building “will not be a partner."

“We will not be in the negotiations for the sake of negotiations,” Mr. Erekat said.

Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the Islamic militant Hamas group that rules the Gaza Strip, said Netanyahu’s appointment “indicates that there is no possibility for security and stability in the region in the coming period.” Hamas is not party to peace talks and is shunned by Israel and Western powers as a terrorist organization.

Netanyahu has six weeks to form a government. Should he fail, the task would fall to another politician.

Livni, who led Israeli negotiators in a year of peace talks with the Palestinians, agreed to meet with Netanyahu on Sunday to discuss his unity overture. Earlier Friday, she said she would not join a hard-line government and was prepared to sit in the opposition “if necessary.”

“I will not be able to serve as a cover for a lack of direction. I want to lead Israel in a way I believe in, to advance a peace process based on two states for two peoples,” Livni said.

Livni does not, however, object to joining a government including Avigdor Lieberman’s ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party, which wants 1 million Israeli Arabs to sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state but whose secularist agenda puts it at odds with religious nationalist parties and gives him common ground with moderates. And Lieberman has said he does not object to joining a government with Kadima.

Many lawmakers from the center-left Labor, however, say they won’t sit in a coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu because of its extremist views. Labor, like Kadima, champions the establishment of a Palestinian state and party chairman Mr. Barak has said he would take Labor into the opposition. But should he change his mind, he would want to hold on to his current job at the defense ministry, a demand Netanyahu would be expected to meet.

In his speech at the president’s residence, Netanyahu did not mention by name either Yisrael Beiteinu or right-wing religious factions whose support for him persuaded Mr. Peres to choose him to form the government even though Kadima won the election.

Kadima edged out Likud in the vote, capturing 28 of parliament’s 120 seats to Likud’s 27. But Likud was in a better position to put together a coalition because of gains by Lieberman and other right-wing parties: Yisrael Beiteinu won 15 seats, and religious parties combined took 23.

While Netanyahu owes the hardliners his second crack at the premiership – he held the job in the late 1990s for a turbulent three years – forming a narrow coalition of nationalist and religious parties would present him an array of domestic and foreign policy headaches. Yisrael Beiteinu wants to redraw Israel’s borders to place heavy concentrations of Israeli Arabs under Palestinian jurisdiction, and to have those that remain sign a loyalty oath or lose their citizenship.

While these positions have not drawn the ire of the religious parties, he has infuriated them over his vehement opposition to the Orthodox Jewish establishment’s control over key aspects of life in Israel, such as marriage. If ultranationalist and religious parties were to tussle over Yisrael Beiteinu’s demand to allow civil marriages in Israel, a narrow Likud-led government could crumble if either faction were to bolt.

Nationalist and religious parties could both cause Netanyahu problems in the international arena if the US were to pressure him to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians. His first government fell apart in 1999 after Washington leaned on him to grant the Palestinians control of large parts of the biblically significant West Bank town of Hebron.

The nationalist camp’s commitment to expanding Jewish West Bank settlements could put Israel at loggerheads with the US, the Jewish state’s top international patron, and its new president, who has vowed to make Mideast peace a top priority. Washington’s new Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, unequivocally favors a halt to all settlement building

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