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Israel ultranationalist Lieberman backs Netanyahu

The move almost guarantees that the Likud party leader will be the next prime minister and lead a right-wing coalition government less inclined to negotiate with Palestinians

February 20, 2009|Ashraf Khalil

JERUSALEM — Conservative opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday moved closer to winning the Israeli prime minister's post, gaining the endorsement of ultranationalist politician Avigdor Lieberman in a development likely to slow any movement toward a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

Lieberman, having assumed a kingmaker's role thanks to his party's third-place finish in recent parliamentary elections, threw his support behind Netanyahu after meeting with President Shimon Peres, who ultimately must decide whether to ask Netanyahu or moderate Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to form a governing coalition.

The action increased the likelihood that Netanyahu will run the Israeli government with a narrow right-wing coalition that observers predict would encourage the controversial growth of settlements in the occupied West Bank and clash with the Obama administration over the pace and scope of Mideast peace negotiations.

Lieberman, leader of Israel Is Our Home party, which captured 15 of 120 seats in parliament, urged Netanyahu, whose Likud won 27 seats, to form a broad unity government that would include Livni's Kadima, which won 28. Livni quickly replied that she would not serve in a "right-wing extremist government under Likud."

A government led by Netanyahu and Lieberman would be "a bad combination for America's interests," Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, said at a Georgetown University panel discussion this week. "It would be much more difficult for the right wing, even with determined American leadership, to advance the peace process."

Peres has been meeting with party leaders all week, and could announce his decision on forming the government as soon as today. Whomever he chooses will have 42 days to assemble a coalition that receives 61 votes of approval in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Peres has until Wednesday to pick either Livni or Netanyahu. He invited both party leaders to meet him separately today and could urge the pair to find a way to work together.

Both Livni and Netanyahu lay claim to the premiership, Livni by virtue of her narrow popular victory and Netanyahu because the rightist tilt of the postelection landscape gives him a better chance of gathering the necessary votes. Netanyahu has expressed a desire for a broad coalition including Kadima, but has been unwilling to meet Livni's price of a rotating premiership, with each serving two years.

A cartoon in Thursday's edition of the Maariv newspaper showed Netanyahu and Livni in bed together reading the Kama Sutra. Netanyahu says: "Whatever you want, as long as I'm on top."

Theoretically, Netanyahu, Livni and Lieberman could find common ground on domestic and social issues in a unity government. All are secularists, particularly Lieberman, whose mostly Russian immigrant support base wants to see civil marriage instituted in the Jewish state.

The three have an intertwined history with Likud dating to Netanyahu's previous term as prime minister in the mid-1990s. Lieberman was his chief of staff and helped Livni land her first high-level government job. Lieberman and Livni remain on good personal terms, although neither has overly warm relations with Netanyahu.

The positions of the three diverge sharply on the issue of negotiations toward an independent Palestinian state. Livni backs continuing U.S.- endorsed peace talks and is willing to concede much of the West Bank and at least discuss the division of Jerusalem. As foreign minister under outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, she led a year of lackluster negotiations with the Palestinian Authority that showed few public signs of progress.

Netanyahu believes it's too soon for final-status negotiations and recommends years of economic development in the West Bank and strengthening the Palestinian Authority first. Lieberman technically supports the idea of a Palestinian state, but is lukewarm on the current process; he recently drew accusations of racism by advocating that Israel's 1.4 million Arab citizens be forced to take a loyalty oath.

Although Lieberman said his endorsement of a Likud-led government was dependent on a willingness to include Kadima, he also sided with Netanyahu in saying Livni would have to give up her main demand of rotating the top post. Referring to Netanyahu by his nickname, he said, "Bibi must get used to the fact that this will be a broad government and not a narrow one, and Tzipi will have to get used to the fact that there is no rotation."

Livni and her lieutenants quickly rejected the notion of serving as an unequal partner in a Likud-led government. In a text message sent out to Kadima members, Livni said it would be impossible to reconcile Netanyahu's politics with Kadima's, particularly on the peace negotiations.

"Bibi's natural partners are not our partners, and are not partners who share our way," Livni wrote. "I do not intend to double-cross the faith my voters placed in me in order to promise myself a job in the government."

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