Netanyahu, Livni Start to Build Competing Coalitions in Israel

Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party and Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party each try to build a coalition government after general elections, in which neither obtained the 61-seat bloc necessary to gain control of the parliament and become prime minister.
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 12, 2009

JERUSALEM, Feb. 11 -- Opposition candidate Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni began what could be an intense and prolonged campaign to woo smaller parties Wednesday, as each tries to build a coalition government after voters split over who should lead Israel.

Although Livni's Kadima party apparently received slightly more votes than Netanyahu's Likud, analysts said Wednesday that the electoral math favors Netanyahu.

His party and others that are critical of or opposed to peace talks with the Palestinians won 65 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, according to nearly complete election returns. Likud more than doubled the number of seats it controls, reflecting a broad shift in the Israeli electorate toward a harder line against the Palestinians.

Livni, who favors continuing U.S.-backed peace negotiations with the Palestinians, must first peel away parties from the right-wing bloc in order to assemble a parliamentary majority of 61 seats.

"Bibi's in the driver's seat, and she's trying to pull the wheels off," said Peter Medding, a political science professor at Hebrew University, using Netanyahu's nickname.

The focus of Livni's efforts is ultranationalist leader Avigdor Lieberman, who surged into third place in Tuesday's vote after running a campaign that focused on questioning the patriotism of Israel's Arab citizens, about a fifth of the population. Lieberman, a Moldovan who came to Israel in the 1970s and has a strong base among immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are intent on promoting Israel's security, has proposed that all Israelis be forced to take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state.

Livni and Netanyahu met separately with Lieberman on Wednesday. Analysts said both would offer him incentives, including key government posts, to try to secure his backing. While Lieberman has hinted that he will support Netanyahu's vision of a "national government," he has been coy about his ultimate intentions, placing him in a powerful bargaining position.

Uzi Landau, Lieberman's deputy, said in an interview Wednesday that his party's priority in dealing with the Palestinians is "to dismantle Hamas," which Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization, and that negotiations with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority "cannot continue on the current basis." Both positions track with Netanyahu's, and the two parties also agree on a hawkish stance toward Iran.

But other party members said they were open to offers from Livni, who was one of three primary architects of a 22-day war in Gaza that killed hundreds of Hamas fighters but stopped short of ousting the Islamist movement from power.

Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beitenu, won 15 seats in Tuesday's vote. If he joins a coalition with Livni's Kadima, it could help her to reach 61 seats but would not be enough on its own. Such a move would also risk alienating parties to Livni's left.

Kadima members acknowledged Wednesday that they face long odds in trying to assemble a viable government but held out hope that in the strange-bedfellows world of Israeli politics, they would somehow strike a deal. "This is the time for negotiating," said Nachman Shai, a newly elected Kadima member of parliament. "It's not going to be over until the last hour on the last night."

Kadima is also wooing the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, although Shas leaders have indicated they will go with Netanyahu.

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