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Israel's Netanyahu wins task of forming new government

Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party, is asked by President Shimon Peres to become prime minister. Netanyahu appeals to his electoral rival, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, to join him in a coalition.

February 21, 2009|Ashraf Khalil

JERUSALEM — Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, Friday accepted the task of forming Israel's new government and becoming the country's next prime minister. He appealed to his top rival, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, to join him in a coalition government.

President Shimon Peres officially assigned Netanyahu the role of building a government despite the fact that Livni's Kadima party captured more of the popular vote in parliamentary elections this month.

Although Kadima performed better than expected, a rightward shift among voters made it unlikely that Livni would be able to assemble a government. Netanyahu, meanwhile, already has enough endorsements from coalition partners for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

On Thursday, he won the backing of ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, whose party finished third behind Kadima and Likud in the Feb. 10 elections.

What remains to be seen is whether Netanyahu can induce Livni to join his government. He has expressed a desire for a broad coalition, a sentiment backed by Peres and Lieberman. And there are many questions about the stability of a government led by Netanyahu, with or without Livni.

"In light of the great challenges that Israel faces -- Iran, terrorism, the economic crisis and unemployment -- a broad unity government is the order of the day," Netanyahu said.

But he refused to meet Livni's price: an equal partnership that would include the two leaders rotating as prime minister. Livni and Netanyahu are scheduled to meet Sunday.

Livni has maintained that she won't sacrifice her centrist party's core beliefs to serve as a junior partner in a right-wing-dominated government.

"Whoever is willing to forsake all his values in order to sit in the coalition is unworthy to sit in that spot," she told reporters Friday after meeting with Peres.

Without Livni on board, Netanyahu faces the prospect of presiding over a narrow right-wing government that would be vulnerable to collapse because of internal disputes and could clash with the Obama administration over the pace and scope of Mideast peace negotiations.

Many observers believe Netanyahu wants to avoid that.

Commentator Shalom Yerushalmi, writing Friday in the newspaper Maariv, said Netanyahu's previous stint as prime minister in the late 1990s featured the same sort of thin majority, which proved unsustainable.

"Netanyahu swore that he would not make a narrow government again, and would never again be the prime minister of half the people," Yerushalmi wrote. "But today he is returning to the exact same situation."

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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