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Israeli coalition grows

March 24, 2009|Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought a nationalist religious party into what is shaping up to be a narrow, hawkish coalition, taking a major step Monday toward securing the parliamentary majority he needs to form a government.

As Netanyahu wrapped up the deal with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, he also launched formal talks with the centrist Labor Party in hopes of moderating his emerging government.

Adding Labor could provide stability and international credibility, but many Labor lawmakers oppose joining forces with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has been trying to put together a coalition since last month's parliamentary election. His Likud Party captured 27 seats, forcing him to bring in partners to control a majority in the 120-seat parliament. He has until April 3 to put together a government.

With Shas on board, a total of 53 legislators have agreed to enter the government's fold. Netanyahu, who hopes to build a broad coalition, is still negotiating with four other parties.

Last week, Netanyahu initialed his first coalition agreement with the ultranationalist Israel Is Our Home.

The deal tentatively gave the foreign minister's job to party leader Avigdor Lieberman, who has drawn accusations of racism for a plan that could require Arab citizens of Israel to sign loyalty oaths or lose their citizenship. Lieberman has also said there is no hope for peace with the Palestinians. And he favors redrawing Israel's borders to exclude Arab citizens.

Shas' presence would help cement the coalition's tilt to the right.

The party, which represents Jews of Middle Eastern descent, opposes giving up any part of Jerusalem as part of a future peace deal and doesn't even want the matter discussed in future peace talks.

But Palestinians demand sovereignty over Arab parts of Jerusalem, where about 270,000 Palestinians live, and a peace treaty would be impossible without this demand being met. Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East War and immediately annexed it.

Shas will join the government in exchange for four Cabinet ministries and added social services allowances that are important to the party's lower-income constituency.

The ministries include the all-important Housing Ministry, which is involved in West Bank settlement construction, and the Interior Ministry, which decides questions of Israeli citizenship.

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