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Livni effort to form Israel government fades

Despite her centrist party winning the elections, Tzipi Livni has failed to attract other parties into a bloc against her conservative rival for power, Benjamin Netanyahu, who appears to have the upper hand.

February 13, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's long-shot effort to form a majority bloc in parliament and become Israel's next prime minister appeared to be fading Thursday, despite final returns upholding her centrist party's narrow first-place finish in national elections.

After a second day of postelection lobbying, Livni had failed to win the support of any other party to thwart a rival leadership bid by conservative opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Vote totals released by the Central Elections Committee confirmed a sharp rightward shift, giving Netanyahu and his Likud party the upper hand in competing efforts to amass a governing coalition.

Neither Livni nor Netanyahu can achieve that goal without the support of Avigdor Lieberman and the 15 votes of his ultranationalist party, Israel Is Our Home. Lieberman met Wednesday with both candidates, who each reportedly offered him a high Cabinet post.

Lieberman's party platform has some appeal for each side. Netanyahu has endorsed his proposal that Israel's Arab citizens sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state, a position rejected by most on the political left.

But Lieberman's willingness to create two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, is compatible with Livni's vision.

It is up to President Shimon Peres to decide who gets first shot at forming a government. The president is legally mandated to choose the candidate with the best chance of forming a bloc backed by more than 60 votes in parliament.

Peres will begin consulting with leaders of all 12 parties in the new parliament after election results are officially published Wednesday.

Lieberman first hinted that he would support Netanyahu, but then said he was keeping his options open. On Thursday, he told Israel Radio, "I know exactly whom I will recommend to the president, but I am not telling because it's too early."

Livni's options were dwindling. If she were to win Lieberman's support, parties to her left probably would refuse to join, leaving her short of a 61-seat majority. Many leaders of the once-dominant Labor Party, which won 13 seats, are already talking of staying out of any government and rebuilding their party in opposition.

Political analyst Hanan Kristal said on Israel Radio that Netanyahu looked certain to become prime minister and that the only question was how broad the backing for his government would be.

The Likud leader has picked up tentative support from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which won 11 seats. But he said he wanted to face the country's many challenges with a bigger coalition, including Livni's Kadima party and Labor, behind him.

"Livni, the moral winner of the election, has to make the strategic decision," Kristal said. "Does she join him, or does she become head of an opposition that will fight a narrow, right-wing government and try to bring it down?"

The final returns, announced after the tallying of 184,000 ballots cast by soldiers, prisoners, hospital patients and diplomats abroad, left unchanged the makeup of parliament that was evident in the hours after Tuesday's voting.

Netanyahu's Likud and five smaller right-wing and religious parties together won 65 of parliament's 120 seats, reflecting a more hawkish electorate's misgivings about Livni's pledge to continue U.S.-backed peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Likud got 27 seats, one fewer than Kadima, which leads the outgoing government.

The final tally appeared to bolster Kadima's resolve to try to block Netanyahu.

The party issued a statement urging Netanyahu and Likud to respect the final returns and halt their "campaign to steal the power and the will of the voter."

"Kadima has won and it is the largest party," the statement said. "Netanyahu must heed Tzipi Livni's call and join a centrist national unity government led by her."

Likud called Kadima's argument "pathetic." A majority of Israelis, said a Likud statement, "clearly rejected Kadima's way, which has failed."

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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